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Docurama presents
WTC: The First 24 Hours (2002)

"The images speak for themselves, intentionally devoid of commentary and music."
- From the back cover of WTC - The First 24 Hours

Review By: Brian Calhoun   
Published: June 23, 2002

Stars: New York City
Director: Étienne Sauret

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (images of destruction)
Run Time: 00h:47m:43s
Release Date: June 25, 2002
UPC: 767685950630
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

The tragedy of September 11, 2001 affected me more deeply than any other event I can remember. Watching the occurrences of that dreadful day was like a tornado whipping through my soul, stirring up a whirlwind of unsettling emotions. For weeks afterward, I still could not distance myself from the horror of this crisis. Needless to say, I greeted WTC: The First 24 Hours with great apprehension, fearing that my prolonged feelings of anguish would come rushing back. For better or for worse, a documentary on the untimely demise of the World Trade Center should generate a strong emotional response, and perhaps, a sense of patriotism. Much to my surprise and dismay, I sat through the majority of this film with feelings of apathy. The film is an often breathtaking look at the devastating effect of the terrorist attacks on New York, yet it rarely drives home the horror of 9/11, as it should. I do not believe a film could ever provide any sort of logical relief for what happened on that day, but I do feel that WTC should have encompassed the quintessence of the first 24 hours as the title suggests. Instead, all we are given is a droning montage of destruction footage.

For all of its shortcomings, WTC certainly contains powerful moments. Two versions of the film are offered: the original 11-minute short and an expanded 30-minute version. The expanded version is unquestionably the definitive viewing experience. It begins with a lengthy, still close up shot of the twin towers ablaze and billowing smoke. Though I was well aware that the building would eventually crumble before my eyes, I nevertheless went into a moment of shock as I witnessed the demolition. For a split second, I felt the same mind-numbing surge of despondency as I did on that foreboding September morn.

This harrowing moment set the tone for how I viewed the resulting images on the expanded version. The original version does not start with this polarizing shot of the twin towers; it merely begins with the camera guiding us through the aftermath. As a result, the entire piece expresses a drastically altered sentiment. It is quite eye opening to witness how a three-minute introduction can completely modify the effect of the same piece of art. Even at its 30-minute running time, the extended version seldom feels tedious or too long. The original 11-minute version, ironically, feels sluggish and over-stuffed. Additionally, the original version does not contain anywhere near the number of spellbinding shots included in the expanded version. A large majority of the visuals omitted from the original are truly the most impressive.

Certainly, no footage I have ever seen has taken me into the heart of the aftermath of 9/11 like this film does. The camera seamlessly glides through the bowels of the destruction as sunlight beams down on what almost looks like an elaborately staged film set. The entire aesthetic is nearly surreal, as if this were merely a fictional film. The way in which the smoke and light glisten through the paneling of the semi-erect towers is a cinematographer's dream. While these images are extraordinary, it truly frightens me to recognize that this appalling event can serve as the basis for artistry.

The problem with WTC lies in the fact that it is too artistic for its own good. The filmmakers seized an opportunity to document a major event in world history, and I am stunned by how visually spectacular their film is. They have presented a remarkable collection of images from what was once lower Manhattan, but have blindly forgotten to incorporate any other necessary elements from the 24 hours following the 9/11 attacks. The startling footage of ruins could have also been combined with news footage and insightful interviews. Instead, the film focuses more on visual splendor rather than the voice of the people. Without any human emotion at its core, WTC is diminished into a morbid and languid art project.

WTC left me with a great dilemma. How do I judge a film about 9/11 in terms of style and substance? How do these two elements of filmmaking relate to the real life tragedy that tormented an entire nation? What am I truly judging, the artistic integrity of the film or the coverage of the event? From a visual standpoint, the filmmakers have done an admirable job of not only capturing the aftermath, but also providing a visibly intoxicating experience. As for covering the entirety of the event, WTC falls dismally flat. The images are horrific, but they never fully capture the essence of that fateful day. Rather than preserving the feelings of dread and despair that were experienced by billions across the world, WTC is the destruction of the World Trade Center reduced to cinematic eye candy. I will not go so far as to say that the film belittles the suffering, but it does feel as if the film is merely using the tragedy of 9/11 to create a work of art and little more. The world is not ready to view the destruction of the World Trade Center from an artistic standpoint, nor am I sure they ever will be.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Shot on high-definition video cameras, the 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced image is generally pleasing, yet plagued with deficiencies. Video noise is horribly distracting throughout, with an abundance of shimmering and jaggies to irritate even less discerning viewers. Aside from enhanced color resolution, this is quite a bit like watching a videocassette. I find it ironic that the disappointing picture quality undermines a film that has been created solely as a visual experience.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: There is not much to say about the audio transfer for a film that essentially does not have a soundtrack. With no dialogue, no music, and no commentary, the only element I am left to critique is location noise. The original version is presented in Dolby stereo while the expanded version benefits from a 5.1 mix. The 5.1 soundtrack features better spatiality and dynamic range. Otherwise, the soundtracks are identical in their mediocrity. It is nearly impossible for me to judge the merit of background noise, so I will rate this soundtrack as average.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo Gallery
Extras Review: A large collection of special features would have certainly undermined the potency of the feature film. The photo gallery is a wise offering, and provides a nice companion piece to WTC. The gallery features a lengthy number of still photos from the film. The photos are obviously much better image quality than the video-like presence found on the feature, but it is quite disappointing that none of these photos encompass the entire frame. Many of the most elegant shots from WTC are preserved here in still form, providing another awe-inspiring—andgut-wrenching—viewing experience.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

I experienced two feelings while viewing WTC: The First 24 Hours. Initially, I felt an occasional sense of awe from the breathtaking visuals, followed by a reaction of indifference. I feel as if I should have experienced more emotions while watching a film documenting this terrible tragedy. Majestic and insipid, honorable and insolent, WTC is a stunning art project created from the wrong source material.


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