"Everyone knows that you're moving toward this terrible, dark culmination. And, so, unlike any other history I've ever dealt with, part of the tremendous challenge of this film was dealing with a topic that was so infinitely familiar. Everybody has tremendous knowledge of 9/11, and not only knowledge but very deep and complicated feelings about it." - Ric Burns
Last year, for the first anniversary of 9/11, I screened 39 documentaries, films and specials for an article on how the event was being remembered in the media. I followed that with 12 hours of anniversary coverage.
After all of that, plus weeks of all-day watching in 2001 immediately following the attacks, I thought I more or less knew everything worth knowing about 9/11 and the twin towers of the World Trade Center that were so spectacularly and horribly destroyed. Then I saw Ric Burns' The Center of the World, a soul-stirring documentary premiering tonight on PBS, and came to understand how little I had really known.
This is a film that not only illuminates its subject, but transports its audience through a series of transcendent moments. This is documentary as both social report and art. If you do nothing else this week to mark the second anniversary of 9/11, watch this film.
The Center of the World is the eighth and final episode of Burns' critically acclaimed series New York: A Documentary Film, which tells the history of New York City from 1946 to the present.
In the wake of 9/11, Burns says he came to realize how much the story of the twin towers resonated with the history of the city itself. And, so, The Center of the World tells the story of postwar and modern-day New York by chronicling the life and death of the towers through a masterful melange of image, interview, mini-biography and music.
The film begins as history, and as such, it is marvelous. But when all the elements come together at about two hours and 15 minutes into the three-hour film, The Center of the World is elevated to an even higher, more pristine and crystallized state. It becomes what Burns described in an interview last week as "sort of a meditation on a searing public event that is still white-hot to the touch."
The point at which the documentary moves from history to public meditation comes during a sequence that shows and tells what it was like to be near Ground Zero as night fell on Lower Manhattan on the awful evening of Sept. 11, 2001. Managing that shift in purpose and tone would be triumph enough, but Burns takes viewers still another notch higher on the home stretch - from feeling a chill in the bones to a sense of hope about the way in which the city and nation responded.
The careful climb to that transcendence starts before the opening credits roll, with images of the towers, one after the other dissolving and melting each into the other. It feels as if the camera is engaged in a dance with the World Trade Center, opening on sunrise with a long shot that shows the towers shining in the distance like bars of gold bullion, while the Statue of Liberty stands tall in the foreground.
Just as that perspective settles in, a new one fills the screen. It's dark now, and the lights in the midnight blue towers sparkle as a camera films them from a helicopter approaching over the Brooklyn Bridge.
Beyond its sheer visual lyricism, this opening sequence establishes the image of the towers as the great symbols of New York City - as part of our national consciousness. Burns uses the same photographic style that old-time Hollywood used to transform movie stars into icons - moving in for close-ups from every angle, in every kind of light imaginable, until the viewer believes he or she knows every mood and nuance of their faces.
Now Burns adds voices of expertise and memory to recount the history of the World Trade Center and postwar New York and America. No one picks experts like Ric Burns and his brother, Ken.
Historical narrative and keen insight are provided by architectural critics Paul Goldberger and Ada Louise Huxtable, as well as architect A.M. Stern. Their understanding of how structures connect with environment and social history would by themselves be worth three hours of a thoughtful viewer's time.
But they are only part of a chorus that includes: Leslie Robertson, the structural engineer who built the towers; Guy Tozzoli, the World Trade Center project manager; and New York Times reporters James Glantz and Eric Lipton, who chronicled the final hours of the towers. Glantz is especially adept describing through metaphor innovative design and engineering concepts.
And then there are the historians themselves: Kenneth Jackson, Niall Ferguson, Carol Willis and Mike Wallace. They place the towers in context starting in 1946 as an early concept of globalization growing out of America's might after World War II. The World Trade Center, they explain, is part of the same thinking that brought the United Nations to New York City after the war.
Their narrative takes the story of the towers into and through the 1960s and '70s when they became a controversial and hated symbol of banking and government interests. That's followed by triumph for the towers in the 1980s and '90s as the engine of globalization kicks into high gear, and Lower Manhattan becomes the center of the economic world in so many minds because of the two iconic structures.
'They were alive'
On every step along that historical path, Burns uses mini-biographies to enliven and humanize his story. He includes David and Nelson Rockefeller, the titans of banking and New York politics who imagined and then ruthlessly built the towers, to Austin Tobin, the backroom deal-maker and the head of the New York Port Authority who became the single most important political and economic force in helping the Rockefellers realize their vision.
But the story is also told with mini-biographies from non-elites, including those who owned small buildings and shops in the 16 blocks of Lower Manhattan that were bulldozed to make way for the towers. Oscar Nadell, a store owner on Cortland Street, led protests against the towers in the 1960s (in one, he lay in a coffin bearing the inscription, "Here Lies Mr. Small Businessman").
Perhaps the most moving mini-profile is that of Frenchman Philippe Petit, who became obsessed with walking on a high wire between the two towers, and did just that without authorization. He and a few friends climbed to the top, strung the rigging from one tower to the other using a bow and arrow - and made history.
"My love for those towers was for their life. They were alive - they were vibrating with the passage of a cloud over the sun, difference of temperature, the wind," Petit says in the film. "I love those towers. I love them from the inside."
His love is a kind of madness, but you feel the poetry of the buildings themselves as his walk is heart-stoppingly re-created through recollection, testimony, still photographs and videotape.
And yet, it is merely a prelude to the sequence mentioned earlier when night falls on the city on the day of the attacks. For all the stunning visual imagery, moving recollections and wise commentary, it is music that finally transforms the film.
As images of destruction move across the screen, the music shifts to the lonely guitar and melancholy fiddle that Ken Burns used in his landmark documentary film, The Civil War. The sad and plaintiff sounds serve as perfect underpinning for the words and pictures that follow.
In one image, while Rudy Giuliani walks through the darkened rubble shaking hands with rescue workers, author Pete Hamill says: "When he was asked how many casualties there would be, and [the mayor] said, 'more than any of us can bear,' that was the most important sentence by a public figure. He put sorrow into the equation, not just empty rage. He created a note that said, 'Wait a minute, we have to think about this as humans and what it did to human beings.'"
In the final analysis, that is also the greatness of The Center of the World. Burns tells the grand story of two towers and the city in which they stood not as a tale of steel and concrete, but as an epic poem of soaring ambition, devastating sorrow and heroic resolve worthy of the ancient Greeks - and the memory of those who died at the World Trade Center two years ago this week.
The Center of the World
When: Tonight at 8
Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26)
In brief: Ric Burns' poignant history and moving meditation on the World Trade Center towers and 9/11