Exactly one week ago today, the last U.S. soldier departed on the last U.S. aircraft from Kabul at 11:59 P.M., ending the longest war in American history. Two days later, Netflix released Brian Knappenberger’s follow-up to his harrowing docuseries The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez with what is very clearly intended to be the definitive chronicle of one of the most documented events in human history.
Does Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror succeed at this? Yes. Kind of. Depends on what you’re seeking out. It’s complicated. As the titular event has become in the twenty years since it reshaped our world and the direction of many of our lives. The final runtime clocks in at just over five hours, and only the first two episodes recount in detail the planning, execution, and attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. But as we have had to grapple with in the years since those attacks motivated us to spend trillions of dollars and sacrifice tens of thousands of lives of American service members and hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, the attack cannot be understood within the narrow frame of that day. It is, as is chronicled in the first episode ‘The System Was Blinking Red,’ an attack sprung from decisions and conflicts going back to the 1980’s, and motivated a series of overseas actions that we’ll have to reckon with for the rest of our lives. It occurred because of a series of small mistakes and bureaucratic oversights that no one paid attention to even as Osama bin Laden publicly announced his intentions to wage war on the United States, and motivated changes in our national security and surveillance polices to such a degree that describing life before 9/11 to younger generations is often like describing an entirely different country.
From that point, the series very successfully blends archive footage and first-hand accounts from those who experienced (and in one case, barely survived) the attacks, in effect recreating the sense of fear and confusion and rage that took over the whole country in the immediate aftermath. Then, with that feeling recalled, it lays out our response in detail, and admirably focuses on the substance of our policy and military action. You will not see any “Both Sides” interviews with conspiracy cranks. President George W. Bush’s seven-minute pause at Emma E. Booker Elementary School after being informed that the country was under attack is not relitigated. We do, however, see interviews recollecting the debates that were happening behind closed doors – on expanding the security state, on civil liberties, on proportionate response, on all of the topics I was only vaguely aware of as a 13 year-old with conservative parents who assured me the reason the attacks happened was because “they hate us for our freedom!” If there is something that really sets this series apart from the literally hundreds of 9/11 movies that have been produced, it’s the refusal to dip into salaciousness. Knappenberger keeps his focus steady on what happened before, during, and after the attacks.
Unlike Michael Moore’s petty and ultimately unpersuasive Fahrenheit 9/11, Turning Point does not conclude with simplistic declarations like “Bush Bad.” In fact, several episodes make note of how the political establishment at the time – including the current President of the United States – uncritically enabled the most troubling extralegal actions of the Administration in response to 9/11, and the concluding installments ‘The Good War’ and ‘Graveyard Of Empires’ expands the recounting of our gravest mistakes far beyond any one convenient scapegoat. In one particularly heartbreaking segment, Barbara Lee is interviewed here as the sole “Nay” vote on the Authorization for Use of Military Force back in September 18th, 2001, and appears now someone almost mournful of how prescient her warnings back then have turned out.
Not that this is a full-on polemic demonizing every government official who made critical decisions in the wake of the attacks; to his credit, Knappenberger gives high-level individuals from the Bush and Obama Administrations a platform to make their case for why their Commander-in-Chief made the decisions he did when he did, and the circumstances that contributed to their rationale. How persuasive they are depends on the viewer, and anyone looking for an accounting of the Trump Administration’s part in our post-9/11 experience will be left wanting; both he and his successor are given comparatively modest coverage in this series. There’s also the somewhat rash decision to project the “likely” consequences of our departure from Afghanistan after hours of providing a fairly comprehensive argument for how those kinds of prognostications are often foolhardy.
One other flaw, and I acknowledge this is based more on subjective expectation, is the lack of any truly new information. I’m not even sure if it provides any truly new viewpoints beyond the benefit of its length of time removed from its subject. There are no never-before-seen revelations, no novel perspectives that completely upend our longstanding assumptions. So it is difficult for me to concur with the supposed import of this series heavily implied by its promotional materials.
Because it was cut and released during the actual withdrawal, we get very little material about the actual end of the war in Afghanistan; merely an epilogue stating that Kabul fell to the Taliban last month. Though the aftermath of that day will not be “over” for a very long time (the financial costs of long-term VA care for servicemembers who deployed to Afghanistan have been estimated to eventually pour over into the trillions), it appears we now have a chance to, for the first time in twenty years, step back and honestly reflect on that day and how we responded to it. Turning Point does not tell us what conclusion we should arrive at. It only supplies us the context we’ll need to be responsible about how we look back and how we move forward, and for that reason, I recommend diving into this series as we approach a day of remembrance with a generation’s worth of hindsight.