10 out of 10
"There is always a witness to history"
Every generation has an event that defines its era and its memory, whether the sinking of the Lusitania, Pearl Harbour or the death of Princess Diana. Like Zapruder's filming of the assassination of JFK on his own primative cinecamera, the footage of two novice filmmakers, Guideon and Jules Naudet was never sho with the expectation of becoming one of the most important records in American history. By chance, they were with the firt firefighters on the scene of 9/11 and theirs is the only record made of the catastrophe from inside the World Trade Centre itself as events unfolded. Indeed, it would be the light from their camera which was to allow a group of a dozen fire chiefs to find a way out of the North Tower after the debris from the collapse of the South Tower had trapped them in the dark.
Having known James Hanlon of the FDNY for 9 years, the two French filmmakers had actually approached him with the plan to make a documentary of a boy becoming a man as he passes through his 9 month probationary period as a trainee. Selecting the trainee (or "probie" as they are known) of Tony Benetanos, they accompanied him from June 9th 2001 onwards as he began working at Battalion One, Engine 7, Ladder One in downtown Manhattan which happened to be the local fire station for the WTC. For 3 months, Jules and Gideon are concerned that Tony is trning out to be a remarkable "white cloud", a firefighter who is considered by his colleagues to have a luck that charms away fires, leaving them with nothing "in the can" but various shots of Tony making the coffee, washing the engine and doing endless minor chores.
On Set 11th at about 8am, Jules went with the crew to inspect a reported escape of gas simply to practice his camera technique. As the bored firefighters milled around their boss with his little handheld detector, an aircraft roared overhead. Instinctively, Jules panned skywards and filmed the only known footage of the first collision with the WTC, almost by accident. With their firetruck just two minutes away, they roared through the streets to be the first to arrive at the scene with their own Battalion Chief, Joseph Pfeiffer, being the first to make official report of the incident.
Incredibly, Pfeiffer, cool as always was happy to have Jukes along and entering, they find a lobby that looks as if it has been hit by a bomb with people who are human torches, engulfed in flame as panicking office workers flee the tower. Outside, deafening bangs like the most dreadful imaginable car accident ring out as people who have jumped hit the concrete of the plaza. Worse, with all the elevators out, the men must walk to the 8th floor from Pfeiffer's command post in the lobby. With 60lbs of equioment, it will take them one minute to climb a single fight of stairs.
Gideon, meanwhile heads towards the WTC through the streets, inadvertently capturing on film the awe and shock of New Yorkers, but also close footage of the collision by the second airliner.
Hearing the merciless roar of the South Tower's collapse, we see the huddle of Fire Chief's race for cover by an escalator only to be slammed by the debris, an impact that leaves Fire Dept Chaplain Michael Judd dead amongst the group. Despite the chaos, Pfeiffer shows his unique professionalism, instantly grabbing the radio to order all the Fire Dept personnel out of the remaining North Tower, a cool-headed act that is to save so many. The lobby, previously bustling with panicking civilians is now as quiet as a morgue. After finding an escape route for Jules and the surviving Chiefs, Pfeiffer tries again on his own to establish a command centre in the street outside the North Tower. Minutes later a second terrible roar shatters the silence and as Jules and the others run we see the approaching cloud of lethal hot gases and debris chasing them like a dragon's breathe for ten seconds as the North Tower falls. All around the stones falls, footage uniquely preserved as Pfeiffer threw himself on top of Jules to protect him, and hence, the camera was saved too.
Covering not only the events of September 11th, but also the aftermath, the inital scramble for survivors and the 6 weeks that followed, this is a powerrful and moving tale, intercutting the events with the members of that station, each one of which you get to know and sympathise with, as he comments on the catastrophe in a studio months afterwards. 9/11, which these two amiable young Frenchmen risked their lives to produce, is a fly-on-the-wall documentary like now other. Whether you are enraged, shocked or even a conspiracy theorist, it will show you the stark facts as they happened. It will change you life.
Film Critic: Robert L Thompsett