Where was God on September 11th? It's the kind of question that is seldom asked, even in academic or religious circles, to say nothing of prime-time television--which is why the two-hour Frontline special Faith & Doubt at Ground Zero is so extraordinary. That Tuesday morning has become such an emotionally wrecking moment in our collective subconscious, and such a key turning point in our geopolitical thinking, that it is easy to overlook its ramifications in our personal faith (or lack thereof).
The program is divided into several acts, each of them centered on an event or a particular idea. The first, predictably (and wisely) walks through the morning of the 11th, as told by survivors and family, and it is utterly wrenching (as these things so often are). When the first tower fell, says one widow, "I knew he was dead." Another remembers her first thought: "My mother's in that." Coming out of such a moment, it is easy to wonder, as one recalls "If there is a God, why me? Why this?"
Frontline is a program renowned, rightfully, for its investigative work, for holding feet to the fire, but what they're going here is something very different. In Faith & Doubt, they are documenting a conversation, and in a way that is unique to television news--because they don't insist on short, tight sound bytes. Instead, they let their subjects say their peace; they get out of the way and simply let these people talk, allowing the open-minded viewer to see and understand how this terrible moment both strengthened the faith of some, and weakened that of others. The filmmakers deal with the vital questions raised with the utmost respect and empathy, and have, luckily enough, gathered an ensemble of thoughtful, articulate, and divergent voices.
There are so many of them, in fact, that this viewers wasn't able to jot down the names of all whose reflections seemed particularly insightful or poignant--which is disrespectful on one hand, and absolutely appropriate on the other, because these weren't merely individuals. They are part of the collective howl of pain and anger that rose from the ashes that day, and their words form a multi-faceted, often contradictory reaction to those events. "I felt God knew something that I didn't know," says one, and "God knows best." "I cannot protest to Allah," says another, "it is His will." The father and brother of one victim talk about the feeling of their dearly departed watching over them, and the sheer emotion of their words brings home the valuable place of religious faith as a coping mechanism for what is, for most of us, the unimaginable.
Others feel quite the opposite. One man says the Son and the Holy Ghost are still okay in his book, but "the Father, I'm having a rough time dealing with." Another admits that "after September 11th, the face of God became a blank slate for me." What gives those words particular force is that they come from the mouth of an Episcopal priest--and surprisingly enough, some of the most skeptical and candid voices in the program are men of the cloth, priests and rabbis and ministers who speak plainly about the "dark corners" that faith can sometimes not rescue us from.
VIDEO & AUDIO:
The video presentation is non-anamorphic, unfortunately, presenting its widescreen image as letterboxed within a 4:3 frame. The quality of the image itself is decent, about up to SD TV standards--a few soft shots and blurry backgrounds in the new interviews, but perfectly adequate for the most part. The 2.0 stereo track also gets the job done without impressing much; it is mostly an interview dialogue track, all of which is clean and audible.
English subtitles are available.
No bonus features are included, even though the closing credits trumpet a "web-exclusive feature" and other bonus content that surely could have been thrown in.
The program drags a bit around the 90-minute mark, and some of the sound bytes are repeated in a fashion that betrays a bit of editorial sloppiness. But there are moments of tremendous power throughout Faith & Doubt at Ground Zero, and its ending scene--shot at the first September 11th memorial ceremony on October 28 of that year--is quite moving. The program is a decade old (it first aired in February of 2002), but the giant questions it poses are ones we're still asking, and still wrestling with.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.