Published on September 8th, 2021 | by Blake Morrow0
9/11: One Day in America
We’ve seen a lot of books, specials, films, and documentaries about September 11th, 2001, but 9/11: One Day in America proves there’s more to see.
Two decades later it’s easy to be numb to an event that ushered in new ages of surveillance, war, and fear. Thinking about September 11TH, 2001 is almost impossible without first considering the societal and political changes it created. 9/11: One Day in America is not concerned with that bigger picture though. The National Geographic docuseries, made in collaboration with the 9/11 Memorial Museum, relies on only first-hand accounts and images to create an unflinching and engrossing look at what it was like to be a part of history that day.
The primary focus of One Day in America is the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City. Less time is devoted to the attack on the Pentagon and the fate of United 93 although both are handled with the same treatment of powerful testimonials and archival material. Of course, 9/11 was before the widespread use of cellphones and cameras so there isn’t an overabundance of material immersed within the attacks. There are plenty of lesser-known moments portrayed in the series though, caught on camera for only a few mere seconds and related in full by the people that experienced them. These obscure accounts seamlessly weave together with the better-known tales of that day.
One of director Daniel Brogado’s main sources of footage for One Day was captured by the Naudet brothers as they followed Ladder Company One of the New York Fire Department (FDNY) for a documentary that summer. Along with having the only documented footage of the first plane hitting the North Tower, they then follow the first responders to the scene of the attack and capture the moments of attempting to re-establish order amid chaos. The FDNY lost 343 firefighters at the World Trade Center, by far the most of any emergency worker departments in the city. The footage and surrounding interviews give a clear-eyed view of what it was like to be in the towers and the stunning heroism emergency workers and ordinary citizens showed in trying to save lives that day.
Most of One Day in America’s power lies in its approach to chronology. Although there have been many pieces of media about 9/11, there have been few as long or as meticulous as this. Each of the six episodes focuses on a crucial time frame of that Tuesday, from the first response to a plane crash in the North Tower to the desperate rescue attempts digging through rubble in the late evening. Breaking the chapters into these substantial chunks allows for a methodical portrayal of the real-time choices that created a moment in history. The filmmakers never give a larger context to the attacks in the form of voiceovers or newscasts, instead holding true to the immediacy of the One Day format. In the fifth episode two office workers escape the North Tower shortly before its collapse. Covered in ash and talking to a reporter, they’re shocked to find out the plane was intentionally piloted into their tower. For the rest of the world this had become old news long before it reached the people experiencing the event. There are countless moments of revelations like this as the lack of immediate connection makes for a fragmentary experience for civilian and viewer alike, giving a sense of real urgency that is rare for documentaries of this type.
There is a constant emphasis on the fine line between life and death and the seemingly random decisions that altered fate. Why did a pocket in the rubble allow one person to survive the collapse and not the person twenty feet behind them? How did a person survive descending a staircase into the fire instead of the people that ran away from the smoke? Why did a man that took an elevator trip from a lower floor survive but his friend that took the stairs didn’t? Survivors have many different reactions to their experience. Some put their faith in God, some saw it as the stars simply aligning for them, and others are haunted with the memories of those that didn’t make it. By juxtaposing individual stories of the loss of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, strangers and friends, with individual stories of the bravery of first responders and normal citizens, the filmmakers succeed at re-sensitizing viewers to the terror that unfolded. Completely dense in its reconstruction, 9/11: One Day in America serves as a momentous tribute to the thousands that perished, that survived, and that had their lives irreparably changed that harrowing Tuesday.