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As hard as it is to imagine, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people and had an impact on everyone else who survived no matter if they were in New York City, in Washington, D.C., or at home watching the shocking events unfold on TV. As we all look back on one of the most consequential days in the history of modern society, we can’t help but look back at some of the moving documentaries that have been released in the 20 years since the towers fell. Below is a handful of those documentaries and docuseries that can help us remember that fateful day and hear the stories of those who experienced it firsthand.
What initially started out as Jules and Gédéon Naudet and James Hanlon’s idea to document a year in the life of a probational FDNY firefighter (“probie”) becomes something completely different during its production and has since become one of most important documentaries about the September 11, 2001 attacks, creating 9/11. Released on CBS in March 2002, this emotionally raw and traumatic 112-minute documentary showed audiences what the first responders — many of which perished attempting to save people in the World Trade Center and surrounding area — saw as they became part of history.
One thing that should be remembered about 9/11 is that it was filmed as the events were unfolding which makes for some truly terrifying moments. One part of the documentary that sticks out after all this time is how the Naudet brothers become separated from one another in the midst of the chaos and destruction. The brothers, though terrified, lost, and confused, continue to capture footage to tell a complete story of everything that unfolded on a day no one will ever forget.
What Happened On September 11 (2019)
September 11, 2001 is one of those days many will never forget, but that’s not always true for the younger population who were either not yet born or not old enough to remember that day. To help better explain everything that transpired that day to young children, HBO released What Happened on September 11 in 2019, a 30-minute documentary that combines conversations between school children and survivors with brief segments touching on different aspects of the attacks.
And even though it’s only 30 minutes in length, What Happened on September 11 has a lot to offer to viewers of all ages. On one hand, it does a brilliant job of explaining everything to young children but on the other it helps parents come up with ways to have those difficult conversations with their children. As a parent, documentaries like this help me figure out what and what not to include when explaining September 11, 2001 to my young children.
Generation 9/11 (2021)
Tens of thousands of people lost loved ones on September 11, 2001, leaving them with cherished memories to help them through their darkest days, but what about those who weren’t yet born when their mothers and fathers died that day? The 2021 PBS documentary Generation 9/11 spends nearly two hours looking into the lives of just seven of the young adults whose parents died that day and shows how life has been for them in their absence. This intimate documentary shows how these sons and daughters have been shaped by the tragedy and how they keep their parents’ memory alive.
This documentary also spends a great deal of time talking about the generation who never knew what life was like before the events of September 11, 2001, and how that post-9/11 world has impacted them compared to older generations.
9/11: One Day In America (2021)
In August 2021, the National Geographic Channel released one of most comprehensive and moving documentary series about the September 11 attacks with 9/11: One Day in America. This six-part series (streaming in full on Hulu) touches on a lot of the bigger parts of the day that have been discussed in great detail in the past, but it also has these very personal stories of survival and death that will help you better open your eyes to the scope of the pain and destruction.
Each of the six episodes touch on a different aspect of September 11, 2001, including the initial impact and response at the World Trade Center, the attack at the Pentagon, and United Flight 93 before it crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Through interviews with firefighters, survivors, and even the F-15 pilots who were tasked with bringing down a plane of civilians if need be, you get a detailed look at how that day affected everyone.
In The Shadow Of The Towers: Stuyvesant High On 9/11 (2019)
More times than not when there’s a documentary about New York City on September 11, 2001, it covers the first responders or people they were trying to save in the Twin Towers, but one HBO documentary takes a different direction. Released in 2019, In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11 follows eight students at a school located just blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood. Through interviews with those students, you experience the events through their eyes and how that day shaped them into the people they are today.
As mentioned in In the Shadow of the Twin Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11, the children who found themselves in danger that day aren’t always talked about, but this striking and highly emotional documentary does an excellent job of putting you in the shoes of those high school students whose lives were changed in an instant.
NYC Epicenters 9/11 -> 2021½ (2021)
There are few filmmakers, or people in general, who have their finger on the pulse of New York City than Spike Lee. For more than 30 years now, the visionary and controversial filmmaker has not only set many of his movies in the Big Apple, but he has used the city as another multi-dimensional character to better tell a story. Lee famously did this with 2002’s 25th Hour, which integrated post-9/11 New York City into Monty Brogan’s (Edward Norton) final 24 hours before going to prison. And so it was only a matter of time before Lee made a documentary about September 11, 2001.
The thing about NYC Epicenters 9/11 -> 2021½ though is that it not only features the stories of New York first responders, 9/11 survivors, and famous New Yorkers like Jon Stewart and Rosie Perez, it also dives into how the events of that day changed everything and set the stage for the world in which we live. This multipart HBO docuseries goes all the way up to the COVID-19 pandemic, painting a highly-detailed and emotionally charged portrait of one of the world’s greatest cities and how it and its people are shaped by tragedy and triumph.
Each of these documentaries touch on a wide array of aspects of September 11, 2001 which helps paint a near-complete picture of the day that no one will ever forget whether they were in New York, Washington, D.C., or some place else.
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Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.