Part insider view, part history lesson, National Geographic Channel’s Inside 9/11 is billed as a behind-the-scenes view of that history-shifting day.
But the four-hour, two-night event could have been cut in half because it’s not until late in the first episode that the program moves beyond a history-of-Al Qaeda clip show. If you want to truly go Inside 9/11, start at the beginning of part two.
War on America, traces the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks back to the late 1970s and the Soviet Union’s ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan. If you don’t know the story of the mujaheddin, Osama Bin Laden’s founding of Al Qaeda and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, it’s a good primer. If you’re familiar, the first 75 minutes are merely a rehash of well-traveled ground.
The pace quickens when 9/11 players are introduced and unknown tidbits like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s unhappy tenure as a student at North Carolina’s Chowan College in the late 1970s are revealed.
The documentarians also tie together strands like the 1990 assassination of Israeli right-winger Meir Kahane and Saudi Arabia’s response to Bin Laden’s offer to protect the kingdom following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait — “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki says in an interview.
But because the Qaeda members involved are either dead or obviously not cooperating, when Inside 9/11 gets to the plot itself, there’s little more than file footage and second-hand accounts of the group’s move from Hamburg, Germany, to U.S. flight-training schools.
First-hand accounts abound in Zero Hour. David Tuohey, the security screener at the Portland, Maine, airport where Mohammed Atta and accomplices boarded their connecting flight to Boston, recalls thinking “If this guy doesn’t look like a terrorist, no one does” — but not wanting to assume the worst, doesn’t act on his suspicions. Disturbing footage of the hijackers moving unmolested through airport security checks follows.
There are also compelling interviews with World Trade Center and Pentagon survivors, including Stanley Praimnath, who was pinned in his office by one of the jetliners, as well as harrowing tapes from air traffic controllers and recordings of calls that passengers and flight attendants made during the hijackings.
Unfortunately, once the 9/11 story is told, the documentary wraps up with a clip-heavy recap of subsequent international terrorist attacks, removing much of the dramatic punch.
Part one of Inside 9/11 bowed Sunday (Aug. 21) on National Geographic Channel. A repeat of the first episode airs tonight (Aug. 22) from 7 to 9 p.m. (ET/PT), followed by part two from 9 to 11 p.m.