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An overview of the September 11 attacks (timed to their upcoming 20TH anniversary) that also scrutinizes the domestic policies and military campaigns that followed in their wake, Netflix’s Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror can’t quite keep pace with the news currently coming out of Afghanistan; its most up-to-date note is an Aug. 15 text card about the Taliban regaining control of Kabul. Nonetheless, if it just misses out on fully grappling with the Biden administration’s controversial recent actions, and the calamity they’ve wrought, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez director Brian Knappenberger’s five-part docuseries (Sept. 1) remains an upsetting, enraging, and largely even-handed history lesson about the past two decades—and unlike, as early reports suggest, Spike Lee’s forthcoming NYC Epicenters 9/11–2021½ for HBO, it wholly eschews conspiracy-theory lies in examining the causes and effects of that fateful day.
If there’s a failing to Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, it’s that Knappenberger has few novel things to say about 9/11 or its aftermath; his non-fiction venture feels primarily designed for those who didn’t live through it, and for future generations. Anyone hoping for eye-opening revelations about the 19 hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush and company’s rush to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and President Obama’s committed approach to the former conflict, will undoubtedly be a bit disappointed. Rather than uncovering bombshells, Knappenberger instead serves up what amounts to an extremely watchable survey meant to function as the streaming service’s definitive 9/11-related viewing option—a somewhat limited aim that it mostly achieves.
Most heartrending is Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror’s initial two episodes, which provide a real-time account of 9/11, not only in New York City but also in Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United 93 crashed thanks to the heroic efforts of passengers who—through phone calls with loved ones—had learned that they were intended to be part of al Qaeda’s murderous plot. To recreate those terrible few morning hours, when the world seemed as if it were suddenly collapsing all around, Knappenberger cuts together a ton of audio and video material, from security camera clips and 911 calls, to air traffic controller radio conversations and first-responder dispatches. He also presents a collection of anecdotes from individuals who were in and around the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, be it Marriott hotel engineer Gregory Frederick or U.S. Army colonel Marilyn Wills. Those tales scarily situate viewers in the bewildered and terrified spaces where so many lost their lives, as well as on the streets of Manhattan, which were soon covered in hungry plumes of smoke and ash once the Twin Towers crumbled to the ground.
Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror affectingly conveys the horror of that moment from various angles, to the point that the docuseries rekindles the very feelings of fear and fury that were so palpably in the air (and in one’s heart) on 9/11. At the same time, Knappenberger supplies a handy contextual primer on America’s involvement in Afghanistan beginning with the Soviet-Afghan war, which gave rise to al Qaeda and its fanatical leader, Osama bin Laden. With a deft hand, the director captures the diverse dynamics at the heart of America’s early days in Afghanistan, and how the U.S. unwittingly helped empower a man—and movement—that would come to see its former ally as an anti-caliphate enemy determined to invade and occupy the Muslim world.
Featuring the participation of journalists, historians, military commanders, intelligence officers, servicemen and prominent political figures, Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror affords a multitude of perspectives on both 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror. Of those voices, the most notable are likely the two most controversial: President Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez, the latter of whom was the architect of that administration’s justifications for “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture) and warrantless wiretapping. Gonzalez stands his ground throughout, defending his decisions (including his support for the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which let commanders-in-chief wage war without congressional approval) as natural byproducts of a monumentally dangerous and anxious situation. Knappenberger allows him to make his case, even as he simultaneously gives a platform for other viewpoints on the legality of such maneuvers and their deleterious ramifications for the country’s future.
In its latter half, Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror segues to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that President Bush initiated and President Obama ended (in Iraq) and continued (in Afghanistan), along the way addressing myriad issues about those undertakings, including egregious strategic miscues, shoddy planning, and corruption. Even at five hours, the series can’t dig into every facet of its subject. And at times, it skims over certain items—such as objections to the “Ground Zero mosque” in the months after 9/11—in somewhat clunky fashion, opting for cursory portraits that press too hard to let the director’s opinion be known (via swelling music and one-sided storytelling). Those instances are relatively rare, but they speak to the inherent trickiness of the project as a whole, whose desire to be comprehensive is thwarted by the sheer complexity of twenty years’ worth of domestic and geopolitical events.
Ultimately racing to the finish line, Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror only touches upon Donald Trump’s Oval Office tenure before arriving at our present circumstances, with President Biden declaring in April of this year, “We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We will do it responsibly, deliberately and safely.” As nightly news reports indicate, that hasn’t turned out to be true; nor have the claims made by Afghan National Army soldiers in this docuseries that, no matter America’s withdrawal, they’d hold fast against the Taliban. With regard to the fate of Afghanistan (and the women and children whose rights under U.S. occupation are undoubtedly now doomed), Knappenberger’s conclusion comes across as inevitably premature and incomplete. Yet as a gripping summary of the start of the American 21st century, his investigation confirms Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Bruce Hoffman’s declaration that 9/11 was “the most consequential terrorist attack in the history of mankind.”