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A Review of “911” (9/2004)


It is unfortunate that the Academy Awards failed to nominate the documentary “911" for Best Documentary in 2002. Made by Gedeon and Jules Naudet it is arguably the greatest documentary ever filmed. Two French brothers who look dissimilar arrived in New York City circa 1989. Was greatness predicted in both at an early age?

As many people know, the Naudets were actually filming a documentary about a rookie firefighter when the World Trade Center was attacked. Their skill level with the pre-9/11/01 footage is obvious; somehow the Naudets were turning a group of firefighters into skilled actors. All of the firefighters from Engine 7 that we see in the production appear to be completely at ease with being filmed candidly. One singular example of the willingness of this cast to perform is seen when skinny, tall, amiable Jules is preparing food. A firefighter moving behind Jules expertly cracks that if Jules continues to cook they’ll all be able to wear his shirts. It is difficult imagining this gag was accomplished with a single take, leading one to wonder how much of the rest of it was recorded this way.

‘911’ is a curious blend of documentary and historical drama. A number of the montages we see appear impossible. For example, to represent the morning of 9/11/01 we see breakfast on the firehouse griddle, a smiling Chief enjoying a quiet moment and firemen putting on their protective gear and exiting the firehouse. Were these images all acquired on 9/11/01? If so, the Naudets must have jumped out of their beds shooting video. If not, then technically this sequence is fiction. It is unclear where the fictional elements end and the documentary work begins.

On 9/11/01 Engine 7 is responding to an “order of gas” call. (To emphasize how ordinary this call is we see a shot of an arcane fire bell.) Jules rides with Battalion Chief Joseph Pfeifer. The narrator explains that Jules is the one videotaping despite having only “weeks” of experience. We cut to Chief Pfeifer in the street checking a storm drain. Suddenly, we hear an arriving noise overhead. Jules then makes a phenomenal pan left. In the far distance we see a very blurry Flight 11 striking the more-focused and discernible North Tower. After the camera zooms in several times we can see the damage to the building. Remember how in The Road Runner cartoons the wily coyote would leave an impression when entering impenetrable objects like massive boulders? In this case, the hole in the North Tower suggests that a winged plane banked inside it without any piece of it tearing off. Since planes are made largely of aluminum and the exterior of the North Tower was reinforced with steel that’s quite a trick.

If this miraculous shot wasn’t enough, the Naudets include on their DVD a shot purportedly of a man witnessing the North Tower hit. In other words, from another setup there actually was a video camera trained on a man watching a plane hit the North Tower. The Academy of Motion Pictures should have recognized how extremely rare these two shots are.

As the Naudets reveal their amazing footage from 9/11/01 they continue to bring the story back to comfortable footing with their narration. One example is The Separation Anxiety subplot which arises after the North Tower is attacked and the two lose track of each other. (Apparently they are the only NYC-based filmmakers who work without cell phones.) Another subplot is the one they started with: Tony the Rookie Firefighter.

The South Tower Strike

Gedeon narrates being worried over Jules when describing the footage taken near the north side of the WTC. Gedeon is videotaping anguished people looking up in horror at the WTC. He then fortuitously begins shooting the World Trade Center, practicing rapid tilts (up and down) as if bored by the burning North Tower. Suddenly, he captures a (largely-obscured) Flight 175 colliding with the South Tower. Curiously, Gedeon immediately tilts down (resuming his pattern of tilting boredly as if nothing of significance had just happened). Then a video image that Gedeon could not have shot is inserted in the sequence. How did Gedeon obtain the two shots? Did he control the operation of two cameras? It is a little surprising that at this writing Gedeon has yet to be interviewed by American Cinematographer to explain his technical savvy to fellow pros.

After the South Tower is hit Gedeon works with phenomenal precision and speed. Having just videotaped the South Tower hit at 9:03 a.m., he manages to videotape an array of people who are not in shock from the incident. For example, a pair of Oriental men look into the camera and state that they saw a plane strike the South Tower. New setup, and a grinning Jamaican-looking Black man tells an Indian man and a white man that he saw a plane strike the South Tower. The Jamaican's claim of a plane striking the South Tower is supported by a particularly tough-looking Black man standing next to him. Neither of these two guys is concerned about the loss of life just minutes before. Seconds later, we hear the Indian man claim to have knowledge of what elevators are out in one of the Towers. Where did he get his information so quickly?

Gedeon keeps moving, finding an articulate older Black man skilled with using irony; he compares the damage done to the WTC with the movie the Towering Inferno. Now that's a man who is filled with shock and horror! Then Gedeon arrives where the engine of Flight 175 reportedly landed. (According to the FEMA report it is at Murray and Church Streets.) We see the engine only briefly. A formidable Black man who appears to be FBI is agressively protecting it. (How was he stationed there so fast?) The Black man only allows Gedeon’s camera a brief examination of the “evidence”. Gedeon narrates that he decides then to go back to the station.

Gedeon returns very quickly and returns to firehouse, at 100 Duane Street. He next films Tony watching TV from a small guard shed inside the firehouse. Now, the author has recently visited New York and taken a look at the interior of this firehouse. There are two apparent locations for where Tony is sitting. Judging from the overexposed light on the firehouse door, it appears that Tony sits in the shed that faces Duane street at the firehouse entrance. However, what seems undeniable is that the ceiling of the shed is lit from below. This implies that a lighting technician placed the lighting on the floor of it. Lighting a structure like this takes some time. How did Gedeon (and his crew) find the time for all this?

To recap, we should believe that Gedeon videotaped the South Tower hit at 9:03 a.m. Then he videotaped onlookers (no longer surprised or horrified by the incident) from four unique setups. Then he returns to the firehouse (half a mile away). The lighting technicians light and meter the shed. Then Tony is captured reacting to the television announcer discussing the attack on the Pentagon. All of this is accomplished within a 35 minute interval. (The Pentagon attack took place at 9:38 a.m., and the firehouse clock shows 9:30 a.m.) Gedeon must be Superman.

Naturally, one explanation for the incredible footage from Gedeon's sequence is it comes from other sources. (One source of some amazing 9/11 footage is Camera Planet.) However, clearly the introduction of new material further blurs the distinction between documentary and fiction. Gedeon particularly fuels suspicion that we are watching the latter when he coolly describes Tony's mild reaction to the TV as showing "the fireman in him taking over." With mass slaughter erupting so close to the Naudet brothers on 9/11/01 it is amazing how they never are sufficiently distracted to discontinue telling their story of the rookie firefighter.

Scott Loughrey

(Thanks to Webfairy, Ray Ubinger and Jim Scott for their additional research.)

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