By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Milking the final droplets of the Letterman-to-Nightline hysteria -- which even had Newt Gingrich writing letters to the editor -- Larry King dug deep into the mausoleum vault last weekend and plucked out an old interview with Ted Koppel. Nightline’s amply coifed host recalled the old days when just three network gatekeepers controlled access to TV news. But Koppel was canny enough to express no nostalgia, for he knows that only stegosaurs like Dan Rather maunder publicly about the pre-blog, pre-cable days when Matt Drudge never scooped the Washington Post and no network would dare show Tonya Harding and Paula Jones swapping low blows (a New York Times editorial bewailed such cultural decline just the other day).
On Sunday night, the Tiffany Network, CBS, broadcast 911, a much-trumpeted documentary that took us deeper inside the reality of the World Trade Center collapse than anything we‘d seen before. Its core was footage shot by two young French filmmakers, Gedeon and Jules Naudet, the latter of whom followed New York firemen into the damaged North Tower. What these brothers taped was almost literally staggering to behold: the mesmerized faces staring up at the towers, the soul-chilling sounds of bodies smashing to earth and the flinches of those who heard them fall but couldn’t bear to look, the devouring darkness when the first tower crumbled -- Jules was suddenly videotaping his own blindness. Perhaps the ultimate document of the digital revolution, the footage made Dogma 95 cinema look about as hard-bitten as America‘s Funniest Home Videos.
Although its Tiffany shine was long ago tarnished, CBS still clings to some vestigial pride in being classy, and given access to the brothers’ astonishing tapes, it proceeded to do exactly what you‘d expect: It shaped verite footage of dire events into an inspirational storyline. Although the tapes get their harrowing power from being raw and direct (we witness the terror and heroism for ourselves), the network’s producers weren‘t about to trust our responses. They packaged the Naudet footage within a sweet shell of manipulation -- rueful piano music, a narrator who told us exactly what to think (firemen, hurrah), levels of promotion and ideology that came as neatly layered as filo dough.
It was bad seeing Nextel’s CEO pop up onscreen to open the show -- the guy was using 911 as an occasion for branding. And it was terrible watching stilted Tom Ridge stand before the big words “Homeland Security” like an android anchorman on some dystopian TV network dreamt up by Philip K. Dick. As Ridge droned on about the Bush administration‘s concern for my security, I kept wishing that CBS had just broken up the show with beer commercials rather than presenting it as a high-toned patriotic special. By the end, the brothers’ painfully honest, observational portrait of the WTC‘s destruction was being treated as political propaganda. 911’s storyline was all about a goofy, idealistic young Manhattan fireman named Tony learning to be a man; it led inexorably to the moment when Tony declared that, although he prefers helping people to hurting them, he‘d now gladly go overseas and do some killing for his country. At last, a man.
This might have been less striking if CBS hadn’t cut a bit too much of the reality that the brothers risked their lives to obtain. Jules Naudet told us that there are some images that nobody should see, and I agree. But somehow the show was too clean. Not only did CBS determine that we shouldn‘t see even a glimpse of the human remains around the towers, the producers cut most of the swearing out of the soundtrack. When 911’s host, Robert De Niro, gravely warned viewers that “some of the language may be rough,” I thought, well, I would certainly hope so. If I‘d been in a burning tower of the World Trade Center and the other one suddenly collapsed into dust, yelling “Motherfuck!” would strike me as being the very pinnacle of understatement.
“Why is that funny?” Monica Lewinsky asked plaintively when the audience began laughing at one point during the taping of Monica in Black and White, her tell-all special that HBO is broadcasting every two minutes or so. The poor girl thought they were mocking her, when they were actually just cackling with delight at being part of such a trashy-fun show.
Even more than E! and Comedy Central, HBO grasps the concept of the guilty pleasure. It knows how to tiptoe the borderline between information and exploitation, and doesn’t care if it occasionally falls into the mud. (Its debacles are high-minded duds like The Laramie Project.) Although its pulpy, crowd-pleasing ways are sniffed at by the staid broadcast networks (most notoriously in a Sopranos-bashing letter by NBC chairman Robert Wright), HBO has no qualms about being sensationalistic. If the Naudet tapes had gone to HBO, we would‘ve seen -- in gory detail -- exactly what the brothers documented.
For Monica in Black and White, the network paid Lewinsky handsomely to step out of the time capsule and tell her story to an audience of civilians, crew members and HBO stooges, most of whom seemed primed to take her words at face value. “We’re on your side, Monica,” a woman cries out at one point, and it must be said that I found myself tending that way, too. Although years in the spotlight haven‘t diminished her self-absorption, she in no way resembles the “whore” or mad “stalker” that the Clinton White House made her out to be. She seems a pleasant, dumb, needy young woman -- a randy politician’s dream date.