9/11 Attack on America: Four Years Later

While it is generally assumed that what happened on September 11, 2001, is chronicled and remembered, news broadcasts stopped showing footage of the attack long ago and many anniversary presentations are memorial in nature, with an emphasis on emotional, rather than historical or philosophical, aspects of the worst act of war on the United States of America.

This Sunday marks the fourth anniversary of the attack by radical Islamic terrorists and, with several anniversary programs and DVDs available, Box Office Mojo considered three documentary-style programs, including a new presentation by the Discovery Channel, judging each primarily by what actually occurred on that black Tuesday.

Airing Sunday, September 11, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT, The Flight That Fought Back, the Discovery Channel's 90-minute chronological recreation of United Air Lines Flight 93—on which passengers resisted the Moslem suicide hijackers—is the most compelling. It generally offers a clear approach to the events—all of the programs evaluated downplay the role of ideas, i.e., Islam, in the enemy's strike—though it, too, takes history for granted and does not go into serious depth.

The production, narrated by 24's Kiefer Sutherland, reconstructs the day's events, beginning with a routine fall morning, using actors and brief simulations. Though peppered by slogans such as "a new kind of war" (we've been attacked by these holy warriors for decades) and repeated misconceptions—a flight instructor who trained one of the jihad hijackers calls the attackers a "gang of lunatics"—the heroic passengers on that California-bound airplane are remembered in personal recollections by their surviving loved ones.

T he passenger actions shed light on a very dark day, in the words of war widow Deena Burnett, who lovingly discusses her lost husband, goal-driven Tom Burnett, also a father. Among the interview subjects are those who loved the baseball-capped Mark Bingham (his mother, Alice Hoglan), self-defense master Jeremy Glick (his wife, Lyz), among many others, including sisters, stepmothers and sons—though, notably, not Todd Beamer's widow, Lisa.

With Sutherland's calm but insistent narration, The Flight That Fought Back shows both Boeing 767 jets crashing into the Twin Towers ( World Trade Center) and cites the Pentagon suicide airplane crash next. From there, the steady pace of what we know happened on flight 93 sets in, with realistic actors playing various parts, and it takes hold, bringing one's mixed emotions to a slow boil.

It is believed that weaker passengers were killed first—and the portrayal of the remainder of the flight that eventually nose-dived inverted into a Somerset County, Pennsylvania, field is neither sensational nor sugarcoated. The attack was swift, severe and it left the passengers and crew—many fully accounted for—confused and terrified but not paralyzed. These were what one might call typical Americans; hardworking, spirited, and highly independent and defiant in the face of injustice. They made calls on in-flight and cellular telephones—and they soon figured that they were doomed if they refused to resist the Moslem extremists.

By all accounts, the passengers united and chose to kill the enemy and the Discovery Channel program provides evidence for every major assertion. There's Chicagoan Lisa Jefferson, the customer service representative who heard Todd Beamer famously call to his comrades, "Let's Roll"—the stewardess boiling water—the sounds of a passenger siege against the cockpit door—it is blood-curdling, and it puts the viewer squarely on the plane.

At the same time, the producers do not distort the events. Passenger efforts are symbolic of the American spirit, however, they were civilians, not soldiers, and sacrificing themselves by stopping a plane from its presumed line of attack may not have been their intention, as some have been quick to claim. As widow Lyz Glick passionately and decisively observes, her late husband, Jeremy, simply sought to get home, see his wife and kids and live the rest of his life.

Before the plane departed Newark, New Jersey, history buff Tom Burnett had spoken to his wife, Deena, of the courage of the men at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the Civil War. He was struck, he said, by the fact that they knew they would die and yet went into battle, leaving notes pinned on trees for the loved ones they would leave behind. The Americans aboard flight 93 left their notes in the form of cell phone calls and voice mail messages—many played here—and, by emphasizing their lives, not their deaths, the producers honor that for which they fought. As the military cadet son of one dead American father says, toward the end of The Flight That Fought Back: "I want to finish what he started."

These powerful words—still alarmingly unrealized—fuel The Flight That Fought Back, which, despite fast breaks, zero historical context and no mention of the religion that motivated 19 hijackers to kill thousands of Americans—Islam—accounts for an important part of what happened four years ago.

CNN Tribute: America Remembers

The Flight That Fought Back includes a brief voiceover from a CNN broadcast that day. When the second 767 strikes the second tower, a newscaster wonders whether the aviation navigation system would mistakenly put two planes on the same track toward lower Manhattan. Though virtually everyone in America knew we were under siege as soon as the second plane hit, CNN's refusal to make a judgment about an act of war unfolding before everyone's eyes is characteristic of its approach to journalism.

Thankfully, that flawed, nearly doltish, style is largely absent from CNN's comprehensive first anniversary tribute, America Remembers: The Events of September 11 and America's Response. The 2002 DVD ($14.95) includes chapter selections and bonus material such as anniversary memorial services and the President's address to a joint session of Congress following the attack.

In fact, one CNN producer reveals that, after the first plane was crashed into the World Trade Center, as the newsroom watched the live feeds, looking at the huge hole in the side of the building, someone spoke: "That's no accident."

This DVD is worth owning for several reasons, not the least of which is the remarkable television footage, which is a part of our history as much as the Japanese planes bombing our ships at Pearl Harbor. CNN has included the rare video capture of the first plane screaming into New York City and a close-up of the first plane's gaping hole. The producers feature shots you probably haven't seen—including several of the second plane's trajectory and widely witnessed impact. They deserve praise for showing the bodies falling. This atrocity must be remembered as it happened, not expunged from history.

Other highlights: the radar map that goes blank when, for the first time in American history, all commercial flights are grounded. Again, there is virtually no mention of Islam—this is CNN. The horror of that day comes across: people running for their lives—from the Pentagon, the Capitol, the White House, the Twin Towers—the sounds of children crying in agony and of hundreds of people in shock and pain.

Rare footage, interspersed with recollections from CNN reporters and anchors, includes coverage of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld helping a wounded person on a stretcher at the Pentagon and the triumphant reopening of the New York Stock Exchange. There are familiar images, too: Mayor Rudy on scene at the Twin Towers, President Bush with the bullhorn at the site of destruction, the hordes of cheering Moslems—jumping Palestinians are nowhere to be seen—and scenes of the Towers crumbling.

Other bits, presented out of chronological order, venture beyond the day of attack, from the bombing of Afghanistan to the forgotten attack using anthrax, which left five dead, 18 infected and 30,000 Americans on antibiotics. The anthrax note to NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw reads: "Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great." Other reports go ignored: the U.S. government-sanctioned escape for the dubious Saudi Arabians, the reports that a building had been surrounded in Boston, the mysterious American Airlines crash in Queens.

CNN, like most of today's journalists, neglects historical perspective: the 1993 Islamic terrorist attack on the World Trade Center goes unmentioned. No one involved in the production uses the word "war." Instead, in the middle of the worst attack on America, September 11 anchorman Aaron Brown says: "we're in the middle of an extraordinary catastrophe."

CNN's liberal anchors spill their guts and get religion. Inside Politics anchor Judy Woodruff preaches that even those who do not believe in God should reach for a higher being. CNN's pompous Christiane Amanpour evades at least 30 years of modern history and ponders: "Who are these people, and why do they hate us?" before advocating her internationalist philosophy. Former Fox News anchor Paula Zahn sports a black turtleneck on a black background and literally becomes a talking head. Medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen is at her best, allowing herself to react to the news, but, then again, she's reporting from the field—at the Twin Towers.

CNN's resources enable the tracking of the President's movements on that day, from Florida to Louisiana and, later, to the Strategic Air Command in Nebraska. Here's President Bush quoting the Bible—here's President Bush in church—here's President Bush calling upon Americans to pray—and there he is declaring "we don't hold any religion accountable—we're fighting evil." And if evil is powered by faith?—don't expect answers here.

But the President's philosophy in action does emerge more clearly in the light of retrospect. As he is heard saying in the months following the attack: "We will be on alert indefinitely." That promise he kept.

Remember September 11, 2001

For the same price ($14.95), worth it only for archival footage and for those with a shorter attention span, the independent Remember September 11, 2001 on DVD runs 25 minutes, with no extras. It's considerably less comprehensive than CNN's DVD, and it's a cheaper production.

Among the assets: footage of the Twin Towers under attack, from rare angles, including a horrifying view of one plane's impact from the ground. There are close-ups of the burning towers, good computer modeling and aerial shots of lower Manhattan. The pace is brisk, the tone is sufficiently serious, and there are the usual low quality blunders, such as having a fireman narrate—he breaks down in a touching remembrance—without identifying the person speaking. The regular narrator is known only as Travis, and there are no titles. Again, no mention of radical Islam, the enemy's essential philosophy, just a feeble voiceover that the hijackers were "motivated by their religious and political ideals."

A few thought-provoking quotations separate segments. A favorite is journalist Edward R. Murrow's quote that "No one can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all accomplices" when the late Mr. Murrow was director of the U.S. Information Agency in 1961. The program ends with the once-widely quoted—now nearly forgotten—words of Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose thoughts, expressed in quiet anger on September 12, 2001, were shared by an entire nation: "I say to our enemies: We are coming. God may have mercy on you, but we will not."

This 2005 article was published at Box Office Mojo.

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