If Only It Were Just A Movie

My first thought, when I heard that CBS was making a September 11 movie featuring footage shot inside the World Trade Center, was do I really need to see that? I still close my eyes whenever some news program loses all sense of judgment and feels compelled to show the planes slicing into the trade-center towers. I'm certainly not ready to see what it was like for the poor people who were trapped inside those buildings moments before they tumbled down to earth.

But "9/11"--as CBS is calling its film--is not the gory, tragic journey I had feared. There is not a drop of blood in it. Those horrific planes don't show up until about 30 minutes into the film. At its best, "9/11" (airing on March 10) is as close to a feel-good movie as it can be, considering the tragic cloth from which it is made. Not that it's always easy to watch. The 45-or-so minutes spent inside the Trade Center--really just in the lobby of the North Tower--are among the most nerve-wracking you'll ever spend watching TV. But it is time well spent.

The footage that makes up "9/11" was never intended as a witness to tragedy. The movie actually began as a documentary of a new New York City fireman--a "probie," or probationary fireman--during his first few months on the job. The film was shot by two Frenchmen, brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, and it was supposed to focus almost exclusively on probie Tony Benetados. The first half-hour of "9/11" follows Benetados as he learns the life of a new fireman, from polishing the firepole to cleaning and changing beds in the firehouse. His new life is so uneventful that his fellow fireman in Engine 7, Ladder 1 call him a "white cloud." They say there are two kinds of probies: black clouds, who seem to attract fires like a dog attracts fleas, and white clouds, who see almost no fires at all. In his first few months on the job, Benetados's biggest blaze is a car fire.

And then came September 11. Ladder 1 is only a few blocks from the World Trade Center. So when the first alarms were sounded on that sunny September morning, the men of Ladder 1 were among the first on the scene. By then, the Naudet brothers had bonded tightly with the house. Gedeon stays behind with Benetados, to guard the firehouse. Jules--and his camera--accompany the men to the Twin Towers. And that is where the real "9/11" begins.

The first several minutes at the WTC are rather calm. We see people moving quickly but in an orderly way out of the building while fire chiefs assemble in the North Tower lobby and discuss how to handle the situation. At one point, we even see an elevator arrive, full of people. The scene is astonishingly dull--until we hear the thumps. We never see what is making the sound, but the men in the building do. Bodies. People are jumping out of the tower and landing on the ground below. "That's how bad it was," we hear one of the firemen tell us in a voiceover. "The best option was to jump." Mercifully, the Naudets don't show us what is going on outside--we never see the bodies hitting the ground. But those thumps are perhaps the most chilling sound effects ever heard on television.

From there, it gets worse. Not long after the camera introduces us to Father Mychal Judge, the Fire Department's beloved chaplain. The fear on his face is heartbreaking as he consults with the fire chiefs. Suddenly, there is a huge explosion. Dust and debris cascade to the ground. We've seen that image countless times on television, but never from this vantage--from inside one of the buildings. After a few minutes of hell, the firemen realize that the chaos isn't coming from the North Tower, where they are standing, but from the South Tower. Though they are relieved, they quickly make another discovery: Father Judge is dead.

The firemen, who had been so calmly plotting the best way to evacuate, start to panic. Leaving the building through the front door is too dangerous: they could be hit by falling debris or falling bodies. Finally, they get out, through a covered walkway, and they start to move away. But they don't get far. After only a few minutes in the street, they hear a terrible rumble. The North Tower--where the men had been standing only a few minutes earlier, crumbles. Suddenly, Jules's camera is knocked sideways. He and the other firemen are covered with debris. We hear coughing and wheezing and a wind that rattles like the inside of a cyclone. The men are lost. Jules's lens, which he is constantly wiping, is stranded in some kind of evil fog bank. They are among the most horrifying moments of "9/11." "At that point," says Jules, "I realized I was going to die."

But Jules did not die. Miraculously, he and the dozens of fireman find their feet and flee north, away from what we would soon come to call Ground Zero. Somehow, Jules has the presence of mind to film the people as well, moving in a stampede, away from the wreckage of what were the tallest buildings in New York.

"9/11" is not just a movie about danger and escape. It is also an intimate human drama. Almost without our realizing it, we bond with men in the movie and, most of all, with Benetados and the two filmmakers who are following him. Nowhere is that made more poignant than when the men of Ladder 1 make it back to the firehouse safe and sound only to discover that Benetados and Gedeon--who were supposed to stay behind to protect the building--are missing. "I remember telling myself, if I survive this, I would be a better brother," Jules says. At that point, the movie takes on a poignancy that we never saw coming.

That is not to say that "9/11" is a perfect film. Even though the firemen themselves provide all the narration the movie really needs, CBS hired Robert De Niro to do voiceovers over the voiceovers--and maudlin voiceovers at that. There is also a feeling of bloat to the movie, especially at the end. While the hour or so leading up to and including the events of September 11 are undeniably powerful, the movie continues into the days after that, when the armies of rescue workers descend on Ground Zero to conduct the search-and-rescue effort. It is most certainly a cathartic time for the men involved, but it's monotonous to watch. Those scenes cannot possibly measure up to the gut-wrenching hour that has come before it. CBS would have been smarter to end the movie earlier, when we discover the fate of the men we have come to know.

But it seems unfair to quibble. At its best, "9/11" is much more than a mere document of one of the deadliest days in American history. With its richly drawn characters, its plot twists and its raw emotion, "9/11" often plays out like a three-act Hollywood movie. The only problem is, it's all real.