As we approach the 11th anniversary of September 11, 2001, the Smithsonian Channel has issued their excellent 90-minute documentary 9/11: Day That Changed the World on DVD. Originally broadcast last year, the film is a straightforward piece that avoids sensationalism or conspiracy speculation. Veteran television documentarian Leslie Woodhead sticks with the facts of what happened that day. Martin Sheen serves as narrator.
Assembled primarily from news and candid video footage, Woodhead mixes in exclusive interviews with key figures such as Rudy Giuliani, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Laura Bush. The documentary does an exemplary job of evoking the sense of dread that we all felt 11 years ago. There have been so many 9/11-related productions, it’s inevitable that some overly familiar footage will turn up in almost all of them. Still, Day That Changed the World chooses the most relevant shots to retell the horrific events of that day. The interviews often go beyond superficial recollections, which helps keep the piece riveting no matter how many times we may have revisited news footage and other accounts over the years.
Though Woodhead avoids the temptation to editorialize, former White House Counter-terrorism Advisor Richard Clarke doesn’t hold back some strong mixed feelings during his interview segments. Clarke still seems mystified all these years later as he recalls former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s assertion that Iraq must be attacked in retaliation because “there aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan.” But the program doesn’t delve very deeply into the Bush Doctrine and the aftermath of the attacks. Mainly the film works as a memorial to the victims and first responders, piecing together a crystal clear narrative of the tragic 24-hour period.
Receiving co-billing on the DVD is an additional documentary that’s a very worthwhile companion piece. 9/11: Stories in Fragments is another Smithsonian Channel production that premiered last year. The 46-minute piece takes a more personal approach to remembering 9/11. Director Molly Hermann’s film focuses on various items recovered from Ground Zero, as well as the Pentagon and the United Flight 93 crash site, that were donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s 9/11 collection. Items include fragments of the hijacked planes, personal items from the World Trade Center towers, and uniforms of fallen firemen and police officers. The pieces are connected directly to the stories of different survivors as well as victims.
For instance, as we see a damaged Airfone recovered from American Airlines Flight 77, we hear from Ted Olson, former U.S. Solicitor General. Olson was widowed after his wife Barbara died when Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. She used an Airfone to contact her husband. Stories in Fragments features numerous connections along those lines, most of them far less well-known than the Barbara Olson story. In fact, one of the film’s strengths is a substantial segment dealing specifically with accounts from first responders at the Pentagon, often not as well-covered in 9/11 documentaries.
For anyone looking for a way to remember the events of 9/11, both from a news/history angle as well as a personal level, the Smithsonian Channel’s 9/11: Day That Changed the World is highly recommended.