If Tuesday, September 11, 2001 had been an ordinary day, you might have stumbled across the work of brothers Jules and Gédéon Naudet, a documentary about the first nine months in the career of a probationary firefighter, on some basic cable channel like Discovery or the The Learning Channel.
On that morning, Jules, the least experienced camera operator, was tagging along with the battalion chief, Joseph Pfeifer, as he investigated a gas leak, just to get some practice with their video camera. The sound of a low flying jet caught his attention and Jules tilted his camera up in time to see American Airlines Flight 11 plow into the side of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
This remarkable documentary, which aired on CBS before being released on DVD on the first anniversary of the attacks, begins in June with the selection of probationary firefighter Tony Benetatos to serve with New York Fire Department Ladder Company 1, which shared a station with Engine Company 7, just a few blocks from the Trade Center. The Naudet brothers, friends of firefighter James Hanlon, want to show, as they say, a “boy becoming a man” as he learns the trade of the FDNY.
For the first two months, Tony is eager to see his first fire, to prove himself, but he is what the other firefighters call a “white cloud.” When he is on duty, their shifts are relatively peaceful. In fact, Tony is the “whitest of white clouds.” Through the beginning of September, his most eventful call is for a car fire.
It would seem that fate was saving Tony’s baptism of fire for that day. At first he is left at the fire house with Gédéon Naudet as the remainder of the company head down to the scene. Jules Naudet is already there, having followed Battalion Chief Pfeifer to the Trade Center and the fire department’s command post in Tower 1. Even before the buildings fall, the horror of the events is evident. Jules describes, but does not show, burning bodies in the lobby, apparently the victims of burning jet fuel pouring down the elevator shafts. We hear, but do not see, the sickening thud of people hitting the concrete outside after plunging from the upper floors.
Knowing that his brother is probably down at the Trade Center, Gédéon begins to make his way down there. That puts him in a position to witness the crash of United Flight 175 into the South Tower. His brother is still with Chief Pfeifer when the second tower collapses. Pfeifer orders the North Tower evacuated and they flee the building barely in time to escape its destruction.
The film of that day plays out in three distinct parts. From the initial crash through the collapse of the first towers, the footage is organized in a fairly normal, linear fashion. From the fall of Tower 2 until the survivors reassemble at the station, 9/11 is fragmented, almost impressionistic, which is no doubt completely true to the filmmakers’ experiences from that stretch of time. As they return to the site, already called Ground Zero by the media but just known as “The Pile” to the firefighters, the film becomes a somber account of men doggedly searching for survivors long past the point where the effort becomes hopeless.
You can hear a lot of empty rhetoric about heroism but this film shows you what it really looks like. These men, largely working-class guys just doing a job that few want to do but that they love, are faced with a situation for which nothing could have prepared them. We see the fear and doubt in their eyes, but they head up the stairs anyway, doing the only thing they know how to do. And when some of their number do not return, they return to the burning, still potentially deadly, pile of rubble and keep looking for them.
What began as a favor to their friend, James Hanlon, the Naudet brothers’ film accidently became an irreplaceable account of the most important day in the life of my generation.