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102 Minutes That Changed America

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The New York Times
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September 11, 2008
Television Review
Minute by Minute: Real Terror in Real Time

For this one week people who live in the New York area can be divided into two groups: those who can bear to revisit what happened in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, and those who can’t. If you have even a vague inkling that you might qualify for the “can’t” group, stay away from “102 Minutes That Changed America,” a harrowing, painful reconstruction of that morning compiled from professional and amateur video and audiotapes.

The program, appearing Thursday on History, gives a minute-by-minute account of the unfolding catastrophe by piecing together footage from numerous sources and locations. Some of the footage was shot in the very shadows of the World Trade Center; some shows the scene in Times Square or New Jersey.

All of it, of course, is hard to watch: the people leaping from the upper floors; the firefighters, some presumably doomed, headed toward the buildings while everyone else is running away. But it’s not all as familiar as you might think, thanks to some smart choices by the editors.

For instance, just where you’re expecting one of the well-known long shots of the second plane flying into the south tower, you get a startling close-up image taken by two New York University students from their dorm window. It captures not just the event but also the instant horror it generated as the young women, in a tall building themselves, begin to panic.

Another recurring view of the burning buildings, from an apartment a mile north of the site, seems unremarkable until you listen to the accompanying audio: a child’s voice keeps asking what’s going on, and the parents are heard shooing the youngster away, trying to shield young eyes from the unfathomable reality.

The press material promotes the program as an attempt to preserve a historically accurate chronology, but you can’t watch it without feeling somewhat ghoulish. Yet in addition to the horror, what pervades these 102 minutes is a sense of utter helplessness. There is value in being reminded of that feeling of impotence, and of that old saying about eternal vigilance.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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