Watching in Horror: Only Eight Months after the World Trade Center Tragedy, an In-Your-Face HBO Documentary Revisits One of the Deadliest Days in American History. Is It Too Tough to Watch-And Too Soon?

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Byline: Marc Peyser

What is the half-life of a nation's grief? When will we know that the country has really started to heal from the most horrifying day in recent history? We'll have a good idea on May 26. That's when HBO will broadcast a documentary called "In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01." If it's hard to believe that a mere TV movie could force us to truly confront the terror of September 11 again, two minutes of "In Memoriam" will change your mind. That's how long it takes the film to show us the first plane slicing into the World Trade Center, in a shot so surprisingly chilling, you'll feel like you've been kicked in the stomach one more time. We actually see the planes hitting the towers four different times, from different angles, in the one-hour documentary. Quite simply, this is a film that refuses to blink. There's a close-up of a person frantically waving a white cloth out a 90th-floor window. Even more chilling is the series of people tumbling from the towers like so many doomed ballet dancers. "C'mon," some guy says just after we see one of the jumpers, "don't take pictures of that!" But someone did take pictures. And "In Memoriam" dares you to watch.

If this all seems like too much, too soon after the tragedy, that is very much the point. "In Memoriam" was the brainchild of none other than Rudy Giuliani, the mayor who almost singlehandedly carried his shellshocked city--and the nation--through that most wrenching of days. Giuliani thought it was important to properly record September 11, both as a balm for today's wounds and as a memorial for the future. "The anger, and the resolution of anger, is something people have to confront," he told NEWSWEEK. Of course, "In Memoriam" isn't the first September 11 movie. More than 39 million people watched CBS's "9/11" in March, and HBO just ran "Telling Nicholas," about a 7-year-old boy whose mother died that day. But those films took pains to cushion the horror with emotional tales of survival. When Giuliani approached HBO in November about making "In Memoriam," he insisted that the channel be sensitive, but not soft. "What people are going to see on television they're going to find enormously shocking, but historically that's what happened," he says. "It wasn't a movie. It was a real thing. Not forgetting it means not forgetting what actually happened, as opposed to some highly euphemistic version of it."

In some ways, "In Memoriam" is the most traditional of documentaries. It's a chronological account of September 11, from the moment the first plane hits, through the buildings' collapse and on to the recovery effort and the funerals for the dead. Giuliani is the film's primary narrator, though his inner circle also sat for interviews, including a powerful account from his executive assistant, Beth Petrone, whose firefighter husband, Terry Hatton, died in the towers. …