On the uncertain timeline we're facing now — the pandemic, its variants and enablers, nearly 650,000 fatalities in America alone — the awful suddenness of the nearly 3,000 lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001, occupies a separate, brutal place in our recent tragic events.
How much 9/11 reassessment can we handle, as a viewing nation, at this moment? Going by how much is currently looking for an audience, a tremendous amount. Watching three of the Sept. 11 20th anniversary specials widely available, the easiest thing you can say is that 9/11 documentaries are nobody's idea of binge escapism. Not easy. They shouldn't be.
The great, grave strength of "9/11: One Day in America," National Geographic's six-part limited series now streaming on Hulu, lies in its unhyped patience. Series director Daniel Bogado follows a shrewd number of individual subjects whose lives intersected with that bright, cloudless and then terrible morning. Emergency medical specialist Ernest Armstead's "black tag" incident, as he sorts the injured and dead for triage; North Tower worker Stanley Praimnath's life-or-death decision whether to try an elevator or take the stairs after the plane hits; Daphne Carlisle's 82nd floor story, as one of the very last to come out of Tower One alive; the accounts are riveting, and never rushed.
"Having no experience being dead," says firefighter Mickey Kross, "you don't know what it's like. So I thought I could possibly be dead." He lived to tell the tale, and "One Day in America" honors the survivors by listening to them, word by word.
Over on HBO, Spike Lee's "New York City Epicenters 9/11-2021½" offers the opposite of "One Day in America" in style, attack and breathless variety of topics. The approach here is determinedly wide-angle rather than deep-focus. "Epicenters" races through as much as director Lee can handle in a hurry, canvassing 20 years of major crises hitting New Yorkers where they live. Shoehorning in everything from the Central Park birder who got Karened to the Black Lives Matter protests, Lee goes everywhere at once, without much of a sense of direction. The best stuff in the four-part "documentary essay" looks at how first responders, working through the rubble, knowingly took risks regarding air quality deemed at the time to be relatively safe. It was not. Yet the erratic, hit-and-run quality of the "Epicenters" captures the fractious energy of both the filmmaker and the city he calls home.
In contrast, "9/11: Inside the President's War Room" on Apple TV Plus has a clear sense of direction and purpose: Director Adam Wishart is trying to make then-President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other key members of the Sept. 11 administration look as resolute and superheroic as possible.
Wishart enjoyed full access to key Bush administration players. In new if not especially illuminating interview footage, Cheney recalls his first conversation with Bush after the attack. It's essentially a marketing matter. "Are we going to describe it as a terrorist attack?" Cheney recalls as Topic A. The vice president liked that option, Bush agreed, and that, Cheney says, "set the stage" for the next 20 years of American foreign policy.
There are some choice details and intriguing questions of problem-solving under extreme duress. But too often we get less of a multilayered chronicle of crisis management, and more of a facile example of image maintenance.