The Life List: 4 shows to watch about the Sept 11, 2001 attacks

A still from Turning Point: 9/11 And The War On Terror shows the remains of the fallen World Trade Center towers.
A still from Turning Point: 9/11 And The War On Terror shows the remains of the fallen World Trade Center towers.PHOTO: NETFLIX

SINGAPORE - The memory of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center is everywhere in American pop culture. So whether people are aware of it or not, Singaporeans have been steeped in films and television programmes that process the trauma.

It has been a mixed experience, especially with shows looking at the George W. Bush administration's military reaction to the attacks, the "war on terror".

For every work that tries to humanise the people of Afghanistan, such as the Oscar-nominated animation The Breadwinner (2017, on Netflix) or the documentary about Palestinian children Born In Gaza (2014, on Netflix), there are the war biopics such as American Sniper (2014) and 12 Strong (2018, on Netflix), which received fair criticism for being "payback" movies.

Here are some even-handed documentaries and biographical works that avoid sentimentalisation or sensationalism, or romanticising the wars that resulted from the attack.

Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror

Netflix

In the final episode, an Afghan military officer says on camera: "Now that the Americans are withdrawing after 20 years, there will be no problems. They have trained us professionally."

The episode is titled Graveyard Of Empires, a phrase that has come to haunt the current American administration after it was shown a few weeks ago that the Afghan officer was somewhat over-confident, given how quickly the Afghan forces folded, allowing the nightmarish scenes at the Kabul airport to unfold.

This five-part documentary series, released earlier this month (September) opens with the New York attacks, continues with the Bush administration's desire to destroy the Al-Qaeda terror group and follows through with the hubris-driven management of the war in Afghanistan.

In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11

HBO Go


PHOTO: HBO GO

Released in 2019, this 29-minute documentary features interviews with former students of Stuyvesant High School, located a few hundred metres from the World Trade Center.

Now adults, the racially diverse group talks about the events of that day, but also what happened afterwards, when being Muslim, wearing a hijab or even wearing a turban carried dangerous consequences.

As one Muslim alumnus sadly puts it: "How a country processes events like this, how much hate its people ingest into that process, shows what the country is like."

9/11: Inside the President's War Room

Apple TV+


PHOTO: APPLE

The image of former president Bush in a child-filled classroom, his eyes and lips showing the effort of processing words just whispered into his ear on the morning of Sept 11, 2001 is now iconic.

What was said to him? What was he actually thinking? What happened after he left?

Produced by Apple and the BBC, this documentary features interviews with him, former vice-president Dick Cheney, former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and several others. The 90-minute work promises access to the inner sanctums of power in the United States in the hours following the attack.

Archived video footage and photographs are interspersed with fresh on-camera interviews, with actor Jeff Daniels narrating.

It is hobbled by the common failing of such documentaries in that former leaders are too kind on themselves and their decisions, but it does provide a fascinating look at the politics - and optics - of reacting to a disaster.

What is also interesting is how, even today, former members of the Bush administration still talk about the attack using black-and-white, good-versus-evil terms.

From noon on Sept 11 to 6pm on Sept 12, to commemorate 9/11, non-subscribers (with a sign-in) can watch it for free on the Apple TV app on the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iPod touch, Mac and other platforms, as well as online at tv.apple.com.

United 93

HBO Go


PHOTO: HBO GO

Released in 2006, this harrowing re-enactment of the hijacked flight that came to grief in a field in Pennsylvania received deserved praise for its pacing, editing and accuracy, with much of the action happening in real time and based on the phone calls made by passengers.

This could easily have been exploitation fare, but British writer-director Paul Greengrass, a journalist who moved into drama, keeps the story focused on the emotions of fear and confusion rather than on action or heroics, though there is plenty of the latter towards the end of the film.

The film earned two Oscar nominations, including one for Best Director for Greengrass.