Ric Burns’ `New York’ Concludes With 9/11
NEW YORK – For many of us, the World Trade Center has existed in two states. It was there. Then it was taken from us.
There is much more to the story of the Twin Towers, as viewers will find in “The Center of the World,” premiering 9 p.m. EDT Monday on PBS (check local listings).
In this three-hour “American Experience” documentary, filmmaker Ric Burns explores why, in their absence, they command an inescapable presence in our lives. But he also reaches back nearly a half-century to tell the little-known saga of how the buildings came to be.
“The Center of the World” is the eighth and final chapter of “New York,” Burns’ 17 1/2-hour epic urban portrait spanning 400 years, whose first installments aired in November 1999, then was meant to conclude in late September 2001.
“This final chapter,” says Burns in his office on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, “was compelled by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.”
Until that terrible morning, he, along with much of the Western world, was blind to much of the meaning of the towers. But no one who beheld their destruction could fail to see the awful truth, he says ó or fail to feel implicated.
“I don’t mean feel guilty of anything. But we knew that it had happened because of political, cultural, ideological conflicts which are part of the world that we are all part of.
“These were the two biggest buildings in the world for a while, and they were hiding in plain sight.” Then, when they fell, “it was an instant, terrible reminder of the solipsism that makes New Yorkers so worldly and unworldly at the same time. This film is an attempt to go back and look at this icon, which was both the most and least worldly thing in New York.”
It was in 1946 that the idea of building a “world trade center” in lower Manhattan was first advanced. But befitting the project’s tangled history, its initial purpose ó to declare New York’s crowning role in a new global order ó was uneasily coupled with a localized push for urban renewal: the complex on Manhattan’s blighted southern tip was supposed to spark an economic revival.
Originally, the World Trade Center wasn’t meant to be of record-breaking height: just 60 or 70 stories. Then one tower became two. Then they grew higher. Plans called for them, at 110 stories, to soar a full 100 feet above the Empire State Building. But was this possible?
And was the project even a good idea? From the beginning, it triggered widespread opposition. But thanks to its champions, including brothers David and Nelson Rockefeller, the project was unstoppable. In the heady, hubristic 1960s, the World Trade Center became its own kind of sending a man to the moon. So it rose, grandiose and racked by contradictions.
The film calls the towers “the mightiest and most ambivalent monuments of their age,” and, indeed, nearly any conclusion one can draw about them invites a counterclaim. They were an oversized eyesore and they were magnificent; a real estate fiasco and a commercial triumph.
And that is how they stood, aligned in a face-off of antagonistic forces ó until the “perfect, almost achingly beautiful late summer morning” when, literally out of the blue, everything changed.
Somehow the nation had remained blind to the darker implications of the World Trade Center’s symbolic power, even after the February 1993 bombing of the North Tower that killed six people and injured more than 1,000. Long ago, David Rockefeller hailed the Trade Center for its “catalytic bigness.” But until too late, a certain truism escaped us all as it applied to the towers: The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
The film’s final one-third covers all-too-familiar events that some of us may choose not to revisit. But, as with the seven chapters that preceded it, “The Center of the World” is an eloquent, arresting film, and, up to a point, not to be missed.
That point is devoted to Philippe Petit. He was the 24-year-old Frenchman who, on the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, after years of planning it, took a surprise 45-minute stroll back and forth across the cable he had strung, undetected overnight, between the towers’ roofs.
At a moment when the cash-strapped city had been driven to its knees, here was Petit “dancing on top of the world,” as he recalls in the film. His glorious stunt humanized the new Trade Center, even blessed it as nothing else had been able to do. “I had a sense of having a communion with the city of New York, represented by the crowd below.”
Painful lessons lay ahead that will never be forgotten. But Petit’s sky-walk is a fine way of remembering the towers.
Ric Burns’ `New York’ Concludes With 9/11