World Trade Center - A Modern Marvel 1973-2001
A&E Video // Unrated // $19.95 // April 30, 2002
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted April 22, 2002
Highly Recommended
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As I stated in my review of Ric Burns' New York: A Documentary Film, there are enough stories in this great city to fill hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of screentime without even making a dent. Therefore, other than a sweeping overview like Burns' film, the best way to approach it is one brick at a time.

If the World Trade Center wasn't the most famous building in the world, it must be now it its absence. The History Channel produced World Trade Center: A Modern Marvel before the tragic events of September 11th and the tone of the documentary shows the kind of jaunty, happy-go-lucky attitude of many of these cable shows. The narrator is corny, the music awful, and the shot-on-video cinematography artless. Yet, in its very innocence, the piece becomes even more poignant than if it were produced as a mournful tribute. Harry Smith's comments, which originally led into and out of commercial breaks, were recorded after the attacks, and they reflect the somber mood of the nation at that time, but the film itself is thrilled to show off innovations like the Trade Center's groundbreaking air conditioning system, window washing device, and express elevator design.

The joy that the film and those interviewed display is enough to bring back all those complex feelings we felt in the weeks after the attack. (Not that they've ever sunk far below the surface, especially here in New York.) Watching World Trade Center: A Modern Marvel I started to feel my blood boil. When Frank A. DeMartini, manager of WTC Construction and Property Management brags about the powerful, ingenious air conditioning system that pumped water from the Hudson through a huge cooling system, you become aware that not only is that feat of engineering no more, but neither is DeMartini, who perished in the attack. Another interviewee, Roko Camaj, operator of the automated window washing system, is also gone. Both men are listed as "missing" in the film, which was what we told ourselves at the time, but no one who was missing past September 12th turned up alive. These men, and thousands of other men and women, are now dead, and the tone of the film doesn't portray that.

Still, World Trade Center: A Modern Marvel is an important document. Had it been made years ago it would be fine. Had it been made after September 11th, it would have reflected the new tone. But since it bridged the event, it exists in limbo. One moment the film is celebrating a monument to mankind's constant reach for the sky, the next Harry Smith is reminding us of how men can bring us back down. It's an emotional roller coaster, and a tough one to watch.

No section is more difficult than the one where DeMartini explains how the building could withstand the impact of even a large aircraft. He was right; the impact didn't bring the buildings down. As Smith points out, no one took into account the insanely high temperatures from a massive jet fuel fire, a mistake that won't be made again.

Still, DeMartini's comments, as well as those of many others, have a real devastating effect. They talk about the strength of the buildings and of the people who built them in reverential tones. They even point to the 1993 terrorist attack on the buildings as proof that they could survive anything. This earlier attack, represented here with panicked eyewitness news footage, looks totally different from the carnage of September 11th; Injured, tearful workers are rushed into ambulances and camera crews cover the event from right outside the buildings. Contrast that with the nearly survivorless second attack and the devastating aftermath.

An interview with one of the historians has been appended to the piece, as it was when the program first aired. This interview, conducted after the attack, adds a bit of perspective, although remains a bit distant. The topic is about the destruction of the building, but doesn't really delve into the science of it (which is the subject of an ongoing, comple investigation) or express the scope of human loss.

The video is full frame. For some reason the Harry Smith segments have a purple tint, leaving his skin tone oversaturated. The bulk of the documentary doesn't display this problem. It is shot on video and is rather bland looking. The dense design of the towers' vertical faces causes trouble for a standard TV; It is just too detailed, but this is unavoidable. Overall the video is fine, if unexciting.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 is minimal. (The packaging incorrectly lists it as 5.1.) It sounds clear, but this isn't exactly Saving Private Ryan. The voices are mostly clean and the music, for what its worth (which isn't much) is well produced.

Just a timeline, following the Trade Center from conception to destruction. Given the 50 minute length of the main feature, this is a disc that doesn't utilize the storage capacity of DVD at all. The added interview could be viewed as an extra, but it is part of the main presentation.

The History Channel's production is hardly a cinematic masterpiece. It is, however, an important document that demands to be seen. The builders of the World Trade Center dreamt of a structure so massive that it could basically serve as a city stood on its side. They never imagined that someone would be sick enough or evil enough to want to bring it down. This film at least celebrates the achievements that put the building in place and, amidst the rubble of September 11th, those are still achievements that deserve attention.

World Trade Center / 9/11 Related Reviews
WTC- The First 24 Hours
New York Firefighters: The Brotherhood of 9/11
Why the Towers Fell
World Trade Center: Anatomy of the Collapse
World Trade Center - A Modern Marvel 1973-2001

Email Gil Jawetz at [email protected]

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