102 Minutes That Changed America
The History Channel / 2008 / USA / 102 mins
Viewed on: Channel 4 (UK)
There is no questioning the impact of the images captured on Manhattan and the surrounding areas on the morning of September 11, 2001. With the exception of the very young, no one needs these images explained to them, and no one needs to be told what happened. Leaving aside things like Baudrillard’s pre-history of 9/11 and the various conflicting opinions on why it happened, the 9/11 narrative is such a well worn story that the last thing we need to see is yet another documentary about the events of that day. And as interested as I am in the social, cultural and political fallout from 9/11, a crappy History Channel documentary would usually have me reaching for the remote.
But 102 Minutes That Changed America – by virtue of its source materials and its real-time presentation of a wide cross-section of largely unmediated visual accounts – is something else entirely. Events quite literally unfold before your eyes in much the same way that they did for citizens and visitors alike. The familiar, measured broadcast reportage gives way to scenes of confusion and mild panic, which evolve into full-blown hysteria when the apocalyptic reality takes hold.
For me, some of the most arresting images in this film are also the simplest, particularly in a series of sequences following the collapse of the second tower. Where an earlier shot from the exact same position had provided an obscured view across rooftops, all that remained was a ghostly pillar of smoke and ash standing where the building had been only moments earlier. Pausing in contemplation – as well as for effect, no doubt – we are left with this shot (and the sound of those sobbing in the background) until all the smoke has disappeared from view.
As we move through a mess of debris covered in a thick film of volcanic dust, closer to what would become known as Ground Zero, the camera picks out a man covered from head to toe in the ubiquitous dust, before shifting focus to a pigeon, slowly making its way across a pavement, clearly as disorientated as its human counterpart.
This may be an intriguing, harrowing film, but in some small way it is also actually quite beautiful. For me, the unstoppable plumes of smoke and ash surging through Manhattan streets bring to mind horror films like The Fog, but they are also strangely beautiful – a fact that I’m sure has been touched on by numerous philosophers and cultural commentators whose names I can’t recall right now.
Anyway, I’ve written a short article for Suite101 about this film. It masquerades as a review, but it’s actually an investigation of the levels of filtration occurring in what has been largely described as an ‘unfiltered’ account of 9/11. Here’s an excerpt:
“More than World Trade Center or United 93 or any of the dramatised accounts that followed, 102 Minutes That Changed America shows us, as plainly as possible, what happened that bright, clear New York day back in September 2001. Largely unobscured by media commentary and broadcast reportage, there is no attempt to tell us why it happened, or who perpetrated such atrocities, or what led them to commit such a heinous act – it simply provides a reflection of the event, a silent witness.”
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Or, if you just want to watch it: