For those who lived through the events of September 11th, 2001—either seeing the terrorist attacks firsthand or watching the devastation unfold in real time on TV—it’s been difficult in the two decades since to figure out how best to process the images from that day. Is it better to watch the planes hit the World Trade Center towers over and over, to burn the pictures into our memories? Or should we avoid the footage altogether, moving past the trauma by keeping it at a distance?
The six-part, seven-hour National Geographic series 9/11: One Day In America (airing across four nights, beginning on Sunday, August 29) is aimed both at the people who’ve sought out and consumed everything 9/11-related over the past 20 years and the people who’ve been hesitant to re-experience any of it. Produced in collaboration with The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, the documentary covers the story of the attacks and their immediate aftermath in microscopic detail, with the help of new interviews and some rarely seen audio and video. It’s intense and thorough, but it’s also reflective, bringing the horror back down to earth by filtering it through the eyes and ears of those who were there.
The hardest One Day In America episode to watch is also the best one: “First Response,” the series’ first and longest chapter. It begins on the morning of September 11th, using snippets from the news and images shot around New York City to convey how ordinary the day was before the world turned upside down. Some of the survivors talk about what they were doing before the first plane hit: a big meeting at the World Trade Center or a day shift at a nearby restaurant. Joseph Pfeifer, a battalion chief at the New York City Fire Department at the time, describes how hectic his morning had already been.
All the while, there’s dark foreshadowing of what’s to come. A recording taken from an air traffic control tower in Boston catches a moment of confusion when a flight veers off-course. A flight attendant calls into her airline’s main office to report, eerily calmly, “There’s somebody stabbed in business class.” (Her tone is so muted that the person who takes the call doesn’t seem to understand what she means.) Then, sixteen minutes into the episode, during some video taken of Pfeifer and his firefighters out on the street assessing a gas leak, composer David Schweitzer’s ominously droning score gives way to the sound of a jet engine, roaring way too loud. The camera tilts up and pivots, following the noise. The shot shifts quickly to the World Trade Center—14 blocks away but clearly visible amid the other skyscrapers—just in time to capture the first explosion.
This will likely be a make-or-break moment for people watching One Day In America. The series’ creative team, led by producers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin and director Daniel Bogado, have access to some angles and scenes that have rarely been seen in any of the years of 9/11 retrospectives, and they are unsparing in the way they use them. The intent is to recreate the confusion and terror of the day, and the methods are highly effective. The mounting panic, the escalating destruction—thanks to the fresh footage, it all shocks anew.
“First Response” is mostly about Pfeifer and his team, who got to the World Trade Center quickly and assessed the situation, noting the people who were already dead and the structural damage already done. But the filmmakers also cut frequently to what was happening out on the street, where New Yorkers were looking up at the billowing smoke, stunned. Forty minutes into the episode, we see footage captured by one of those bystanders, who was recording the hail of falling debris with a video camera, their lens pointed right at the second tower when the next plane crashed into it.
Give Bogado and company credit for not sensationalizing those two big moments of impact. Multiple angles exist of the airplanes hitting the towers, but in the first episode, One Day In America only shows each once, and each from the perspective of the people on the ground. Later episodes do show the explosions again, but only in the context of introducing other people’s stories. The purpose of “First Response”—and of the series as a whole—is to preserve the initial reactions of the citizens and the emergency responders. That said, the series doesn’t skimp on the grisly details. The images of desperate individuals leaping from the towers? That’s in this documentary. Burned, bloodied, mangled, and ash-covered victims? Also here. And there’s more damage to show, too, from the first two plane crashes and the two others that happened that morning.
The collapse of the south tower occurs at the end of episode two (titled “The South Tower”); it’s repeated in harrowing fashion in episode three, “Collapse,” caught live on air by a TV reporter. The fourth episode, “The Cloud,” shows the other tower’s fall (but just briefly, since most of the people shooting video from below had been cleared away before then). Not as much footage exists of the simultaneous attack on the Pentagon, but security-cam images of the initial hit are shown at the start of episode three. The end of “Collapse” also covers the crash of United Flight 93, not documented on video at all.
The main characters of One Day In America are the first responders, which in the second half of the series—“The Cloud,” “I’m Coming For You, Brother,” and “It’s All Gone, Kid”—allows for a few moments of hope and triumph, as people are rescued and get to reconnect with their loved ones. There are digressions throughout, too, covering the survivors who escaped, the media on the scene, the doctors tending to the wounded, the police trying to control the crowds, and more. Bogado’s team rarely circles back; they mostly keep moving forward chronologically, bringing in new voices as needed.
Because of this, the documentary becomes exhausting by the end, as the frenzied drama of the attacks gives way to the punishing grind of clearing debris and hauling out bodies. Also, because the scope of the project is narrow by design (and overwhelmingly focused on New York, by circumstance), it’s missing a lot of what some might consider necessary context: like what happened before September 11th, 2001, and what happened after. This is more of a straightforward historical record than a rich text, ripe for analysis.
Still, the filmmakers do skillfully reconstruct the raw emotions of the day, which should allow those who remember it all well to bring their own points-of-view to the series. Re-experiencing these moments now, it’s hard not to think about the tumult of the succeeding 20 years. Very little in American life in the decades just before 9/11 prepared us for a moment when something that looked bad in a breaking news report would actually be worse than we could’ve imagined. Reliving the day is a reminder of all that we’ve endured—and all we’ve lost.