***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras C
directed by Linda Ellman
by Alex Jackson I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but I think the documentary too often gets a pass as cinema. All of the focus is on the subject matter and next to no interest is paid to technique. The core audience for documentaries might be the same one Pauline Kael described in her infamous essay "Fear of Movies", i.e., the people who refused to see Carrie, Taxi Driver, or even Jaws because they "don't like violence" (read: they don't like anything that is going to take them out of their comfort zone). The larger problem isn't simply that films, on a visceral level, ought to be pleasurable or, at minimum, interesting, but that the lack of filmmaking excitement in most documentaries is intended to approximate objectivity, which is poisonous to art. "Objectivity," almost by definition, eliminates values and any perceivable human element, and once art eliminates values and any perceivable human element, it ceases to have any utility.
But as the line between news and entertainment--or real life and "reel" life, if you will--has been blissfully blurred in the age of Michael Moore, reality television, and "The Colbert Report", it may be time to retire this rant. Non-fiction films are now aesthetically similar enough to fiction films that the two can sit down at the table of brotherhood together. The traditional granola documentary, at least when it comes to feature-length films, is very nearly extinct. Nevertheless, I found myself pleasantly surprised by Linda Ellman's under-publicized On Native Soil. The film is actually pretty good cinema, worthy of comparison to last year's other September 11th films, World Trade Center and United 93. It was adapted directly from The 9/11 Commission Report, an ominous sign indeed--and yet Ellman has given the material some kind of point-of-view and endued it with passion and intensity.
What needs to be understood about September 11th is that the whole thing took place over the course of a couple of hours on a lazy Tuesday morning. For all intents and purposes, the attack materialized out of thin air without warning and without reason. As hard as people like Sean Hannity may try, it cannot be thought of as another Pearl Harbor and what followed as a result cannot be thought of as World War III. The accused perpetrators are as varied as Osama Bin Laden, Islam, "the Jews," God, feminists, homosexuals, and, incredibly, the Bush administration. It seems to have been an act of war, but with whom are we at war? September 11th is closer in nature to the Columbine shootings than to something like Pearl Harbor. The historical context is painfully indistinct and the attempts to make sense of it are born of conflicting political agendas, suggesting that there is no sense to make.
Between United 93, World Trade Center, and On Native Soil, only United 93 is a bona fide masterpiece. That film is told in real time, a decision that feeds our dread to an unbearable level. In focusing on the story of United 93, its attitude towards 9/11 is surprisingly nihilistic. It's saying that we are all going to die, the real question is are we going to die with dignity. In the end, the passengers of United 93 are rotting in the exact same earth as the hijackers, not to mention those trapped in the towers. They went out fighting and they possibly saved several other lives, but they are still dead. They did not willingly sacrifice themselves (they would be dead whether or not they rushed the cabin) and so they cannot properly be called heroes or martyrs. They died with dignity and that is a meagre triumph.
In a sense, On Native Soil is a mean between the two pictures, United 93 and World Trade Center. (To paraphrase Stanley Kubrick's oft-quoted summary of Schindler's List, if September 11th was about three thousand people who died, then World Trade Center was about two who don't.) It analyzes and re-analyzes exactly when and how the attack happened and all the ways in which the United States was vulnerable. Several Americans died and the film is, in part, a fitting memorial to them. The heroes are the victims' families, who pushed Congress to form a commission to investigate what happened that day and, in a moment that rather inexplicably makes me teary-eyed in the recounting, prompted former NSC counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke to apologize to the deceased's families and admit, "Your government failed you, those you entrusted to protect you failed you, and I failed you."
Port Authority police officer David Lim was evacuating Tower I when it collapsed. He survived. "You have to imagine a straw on a pancake," he says, "we were in that straw." In this passage, On Native Soil reveals itself as more The Pianist than Schindler's List. Survival is ignoble, random, and meaningless. There is no fate and there is no divine intervention. The universe is governed by chaos and so it is only natural that in a catastrophe like the World Trade Center attacks, someone will be left standing. There was absolutely no good reason that a select few wound up in the straw instead of under the pancake. Lim, for what it's worth, is a bit on the odd side. The "straw on a pancake" metaphor paints a vivid picture, but who puts a straw on a pancake? He describes the ensuing wreckage as being like "the beginning of Terminator." Lim also slightly overanthropomorphizes his dog, Sirius. He told Sirius he was going to come back for him, but he was unable to deliver on that promise. "At this point, I already knew, he passed on. 'Passed on,' I make it sound like he went in his sleep. But he was killed. He was murdered." Just a tad odd, saying that his dog was "murdered."
Understand that Ellman doesn't condescend to Lim in the least and brazenly accepts his odd way of speaking. One imagines that this oddness is part of the point: human beings don't come out of a box. If you're going to discuss September 11th on a microcosmic scale, you can't iron out behavioral idiosyncrasies. As the universe is governed by chaos, not all the pieces fit together perfectly and sometimes the Port Authority officer who survived is the type of guy who compares the wreckage to the beginning of The Terminator. It almost goes without saying that Lim is more interesting, sympathetic, and human than anybody in either United 93 or World Trade Center. Strangely enough, he's too out there to be anything other than utterly authentic.
The film's strong visceral wallop is attributable primarily to the wide variety of source material. While On Native Soil utilizes talking-head interviews and an omniscient narrator (alternately Hilary Swank and Kevin Costner, the latter of whom has little talent in this arena), there is a sufficient amount of archival footage here for Ellman to be able to tell the story in mostly cinematic terms. We see and/or hear airport surveillance video of the hijackers getting through security, C-Span coverage of the Commission Report hearings, air traffic control's audiotapes, and, of course, the actual attack on the World Trade Center, which is covered from an astonishing number of angles. Ultimately, there is too much information for us to take in and Ellman doesn't organize it in a way that's easy to follow. Some could justifiably conclude that she is therefore incompetent at documentary filmmaking, but this shotgun approach is, in itself, a meaningful way of looking at September 11th. THE ONION wisecracked at the time that American life had begun to resemble a bad Jerry Bruckheimer movie, but On Native Soil more or less legitimizes this observation. This onslaught of information reminds us that the attack happened in the media age--that 9/11 has had the ever-living shit documented out of it; and this lends it a certain hyperrealistic quality. I'm beginning to think the very act of photographing something somehow renders it less "real," which may be why I'm so disdainful of distinguishing fiction from non-fiction film.
Though On Native Soil is a triumph on an artistic level, I nevertheless find myself having strong reservations about its merits. While I might've been wrong in expecting documentaries to be more like fiction films, I'm not quite sure what I would prefer instead. Something appears to be missing--On Native Soil doesn't stick to the ribs like it should. It's forgettable. All that cinema kind of sugarcoats it and renders it too palatable; a boring anaesthetic documentary about September 11th may paradoxically yield more power. The film is rather politically naïve, too. The premise is essentially that the United States became vulnerable to a terrorist attack through failures of both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Clinton refused to retaliate against previous Al-Qaeda attacks, in effect "emboldening" them, and Bush refused to follow up on CIA reports that an attack was imminent. Airport and border security were lax. We see the actual approved student visa used by one of the terrorists: his address is listed as "hotel." Essentially, the film is saying that the United States should've fostered its current culture of fear long before September 11th, 2001.
For the sake of ideological continuity, liberals need to decide if they hate Bush for not defending the United States against the 9/11 attacks or for cultivating a society in which we lose the right to bring bottled water onto airplanes. They cannot have it both ways. On Native Soil chooses the former and this, in my eyes, is the wrong choice. There is little comment on the potential threats to civil liberties and, moreover, there is little comment on the terrorists' motivations for attacking. Ellman seems unwilling to consider that surrendering to their demands and adopting a foreign policy of isolationism could prevent another attack. I'd like to claim that this is why the film doesn't have much staying power, but Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 was just as dumb, probably dumber, and still it lingers.
Moore's film undoubtedly benefited from a sense of communal synergy, nay, urgency. This was more than hype: Fahrenheit 9/11 came out the summer before the last election and I saw it at the Century 16 in Salt Lake City, Utah, where audience members screamed "Fuck you!" whenever Bush came on-screen. These factors certainly gave Fahrenheit 9/11 a primal power that is lacking in On Native Soil. But I also believe that Moore is more comfortable as a pop filmmaker. (The use of Go-Go's' "Vacation" during a montage of the President golfing is the sort of trick that is finally beneath Ellman.) On Native Soil is political but non-partisan, and this is a problem. Although Ellman's ideas are not substantial enough to sustain a "real" documentary treatment, she maintains a sense of faux-objectivity, softening the film's primal emotional impact. Neither fish nor fowl, On Native Soil is a worthwhile curiosity but hardly indispensable.
Maple/Lionsgate's 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer is relatively crisp and respectable. Interviews and the Commission Report hearings are a bit blurry and strained, likely as a result of being reformatted for widescreen. (The extras, in full-frame, look much better). That said, the digital footage of the Twin Towers falling is frighteningly potent, while the computer-generated title cards/animations have a flawless sheen. Note that the hijacking re-enactments were obviously manipulated during post-production to add a layer of vérité grain. The accompanying Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio is excellent, with the Costner/Swank narration ringing loud and clear and Kyle Kenneth Banner and Michael Tavera's chilling score sounding appropriately booming; the gasps and cries of the 9/11 spectators are meanwhile delicately and precisely rendered.
Extras are numerous but unimpressive, unnecessary, and dull. In "Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman on the Formation of the 9/11 Commission" (4 mins.), McCain and Lieberman tell us how they spearheaded the formation of the commission even though it wasn't the popular thing to do. "Survivors: The Rest of their Stories" is a collection of extended interviews with David Lim (5 mins.), World Trade Center survivors Brian Clark and Stanley Praimnath (16 mins.), and Pentagon survivor Brian Birdwell (11 mins.). By integrating them into the film proper, Ellman was able to legitimize the kitsch of Lim's mourning over his dog and the Chicken Soup for the Soul-esque witnessing of Jesus freaks Clark, Praimnath, and Birdwell; on their own, these human-interest sidebars are hardly edifying.
"Accountability: Taking Responsibility" includes "The Family Members' Perspective" (5 mins.), "The Intel Perspective" (14 mins.) and "The Political Perspective" (4 mins.). Again the prevailing opinion is that the American government is to blame for not rooting out embedded terrorist agents, killing Al-Qaeda leaders when they had the chance, and appropriating funds for national defense. A couple of interviewees manage to say what hasn't been said, however: Dale Watson, former Assistant Director for the FBI for Counterterrorism, Counter Intelligence, argues that it was not feasible for the FBI to investigate every foreign student attending flight school--particularly when there was no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing; and former Georgia senator Max Cleland explicitly attacks the United States for antagonizing the radical Islamic world by supporting their enemies and occupying their lands, a fact I desperately wanted the film proper to acknowledge.
"Are We Safer Now Than We Were Before September 11th" (11 mins.) poses the titular question to several key government officials. The consensus is basically "yes, but we still have a long way to go." Senator Cleland is a notable dissenter, arguing that we have done more to antagonize the Muslim world since 9/11, effectively ensuring another attack. Mike Sheuer, CIA Bin Laden Unit chief from 1996-1999, came off as in favour of further military interventionism in the "Accountability: Taking Responsibility" segment by taking the Clinton and Bush administrations to task for never apprehending Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Here, though, he shows that his position is somewhat more complex. He attacks the 9/11 Commission for advocating public diplomacy, as it assumes that "the unwashed Muslim masses" don't understand that what we're doing is for their own good. Sheuer concludes that their reasoning for attacking isn't particularly unsound.
"Court TV Special with Catherine Crier" (17 mins.) originally aired immediately after On Native Soil premiered on the eponymous network and contains interviews with Ellman, Rep. Christopher Shays, and C. Lee and Eunice Hanson, who lost their son and daughter-in-law in one of the hijackings. Not a lot that's particularly substantial, though the Hansons' gratitude for Richard Clarke's apology is touching and the television context is a blissful respite from the raw presentation of the other featurettes. A photo gallery and forced trailers for Akeelah and the Bee, Control Room, Peaceful Warrior, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, and La Mujer de mi Hermano round out the platter. The actual 9/11 Commission Report is included as a ROM-based supplement, a major selling point of this disc. Originally published: April 23, 2007.