September 11 Specials

Eric Draper/Courtesy of George W. Bush Presidential Library/Smithsonian Channel

The 10-year anniversary is marked by a Spielberg epic, a Showtime tearjerker and excellent doc work.

We can't un-see what came through our televisions on Sept. 11. For most of us, the terrorist attacks were very much filtered through the small screen. It connected us to the tragedy, and to each other, on a scale much larger than the medium ever had before. But few on-air remembrances since then have been able to jolt the senses and replicate the kind of shock and horror that viewers experienced then. The moment can't be duplicated, so the emotions the annual remembrance is meant to touch can begin to fade. 

It was certainly easier, in recent years, to give in to remembrance fatigue, to not so much ignore but keep at arm's length, to maybe hide from the pain of it all. But not this one. A decade means something. Not since the one-year anniversary have viewers been so clearly ready to open themselves up to a bigger experience. And it's a natural opportunity to assess what we've learned and what we've accomplished since 9/11.

In the next few weeks we will be awash in documentaries and remembrances. Perhaps too many: Who knew Animal Planet would have a 9/11 special, Saved, which focuses on New York families and their pets? After combing through a number of them, there are two dominant themes that emerge. One, that we were profoundly changed by 9/11, both personally (many of the documentaries focus on people immediately affected, mostly by death, on that day) and as a country (shifting our defense focus from nations to terrorists groups and our psyche from invincible to vulnerable). And two, that it is desperately important to build something to fill the void and prove that we couldn't be kept down, along with a place to reflect and never forget.

Some lay it all out matter-of-factly, as in the timeline of focused Smithsonian Channel's 9/11: Day That Changed the World and the how-we-got-to-the-attack chronology of National Geographic's compelling Inside 9/11: War on America. While some docs have shied away from even showing the two planes hitting the towers, these detailed ones show it all, including the people who fell or leaped from the burning buildings, frantic audio calls for help, etc.

In the case of Smithsonian's effort, there is detailed description and participation from such major as like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Rudolph Guiliani, Andrew Card and Richard Clarke. Consider this the look inside the government's reaction -- scattered as it was -- unfolding in real time. Card gives an intriguing account of how crazed the day was as he traveled with President Bush on an uncertain odyssey aboard Air Force One. And Clarke's definitive condemnation of how slow the government was to take him seriously on the threat of terrorism is a highlight.

Showtime's Rebirth takes five people with connections to the tragedy and follows and interviews them in each year from 2001 to the present. It's a moving tapestry of emotions, with each person's journey taking surprising turns. A tough-as-nails construction foreman suffers post-traumatic stress years after the event; a son who lost his mother and gave up on his father finds a way to reconcile all of his mixed emotions through the years and, in the most harrowing example, a burn victim, who went through 40 surgeries, demonstrates quiet resilience. It might be a stretch to call it "uplifting," but it expands beyond remembrance by looking at how people moved through depression, understanding and hope.

More overt in looking forward are the documentaries in the we-shall-rebuild mold, such as PBS' Nova, which offers up Engineering Ground Zero. It focuses on the massive feat that's required to build One World Trade Center, the 104-story, 1,776-foot skyscraper that will be done in 2013. There's also focus on the museum and memorial that will be unveiled by President Obama on Sept. 11. In typical Nova fashion, it's a nuts-and-bolts piece that is intriguing and informative.

While Nova's show is an hour, Discovery's Steven Spielberg-produced Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero is a six-hour epic. The emphasis is on looking forward and how rebuilding is cathartic not only for the city but for the surviving families and the country as well. Rising is peopled with talking heads such as former New York Gov. George Pataki and "World Trade Center Master Planner" Daniel Libeskind, along with the perspectives of the on-site construction workers tasked with making history. Rising (along with many of the documentaries with build-centric perspectives) is also in love with time-lapse photography that allows viewers to see the day-by-day growth of the site. The parts of Rising that Discovery gave to critics primarily cover the memorial museum and focuses on elements that will be inside -- like burned-out fire trucks, beams from the site, etc. -- looking forward also takes us back to the fateful day. Libeskind is particularly emphatic that the museum had to be underground on the Ground Zero site to give future visitors a visceral connection to what happened. "You will not be the same person when you come out," he says. It remains to be seen whether the gravitas of Spielberg's involvement pays any dividends during the course of the series.

No matter what you watch in the coming weeks, questions about how we've done since will be raised, and the twin themes so prevalent in these documentaries -- remember and rebuild -- will have emotional impact. For many families, it will be the first time that the shocking images, the painful fallout, will be used as a teaching tool for children too young to know what we know. And for everyone else, much of what we'll see on our screens will convince us that it's important to watch it again, and to not forget.


Rebirth, 9 p.m.  Sept. 11, (Showtime)
9/11: Day That Changed the World, 8 and 11 p.m. Sept. 5 (Smithsonian Channel)
Inside 9/11: War on America, 8 and 11 p.m. Aug. 31 (National Geographic)
Nova's Engineering Ground Zero, 9 p.m. Sept. 7 (PBS)
Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero, 8 p.m. Aug. 25 (Discovery)
Saved, 9 p.m. Sept. 7 (Animal Planet)