Spike Lee’s HBO miniseries “NYC Epicenters 9 / 11-2021½” is a heartfelt love letter to the vibrancy and resilience of New York City. It’s also, less deliberately, a reminder that conspiracy theories are not just the product of paranoia and hate, but also of trust and community.
Spike Lee’s HBO miniseries “NYC Epicenters 9 / 11-2021½” is a heartfelt love letter to the vibrancy and resilience of New York City.
Lee’s documentary focuses on two of the major tragedies New York has experienced in the past two decades: Covid-19 and 9/11. He devotes the first two episodes to the pandemic – including its impact on George Floyd’s anti-racist protests. The second two episodes mainly cover the 2001 terrorist attack, which turned 20 on Saturday.
Whatever his subject, Lee positions himself more as a listener than an investigator. He interviews rescue workers, bereaved survivors, celebrities and politicians with the same empathetic enthusiasm, sometimes jumping to repeat a particularly eloquent quote or to talk about sports.
This welcoming approach creates a lot of highlights. State Assembly Member Ron Kim, for example, cries for the camera as he shares how his wife helped him challenge former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s demands that Kim cease to investigate pandemic deaths in nursing homes. Lee prompts other interviewees to talk about their last memories of loved ones. A flight attendant talks about the shame and regret he felt while profiling Arab passengers after the towers fell.
In some cases, however, Lee might have been better served by a more adversarial approach. Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Andrew Cuomo and others Lee does not interview come under heavy criticism (and rightly so). But New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, whose handling of Covid-19 has been widely questioned elsewhere, is being treated by Lee with almost obsequious deference. The toughest questions concern Blasio’s Red Sox fandom. Lee treats his interviewees like friends, and once you’re his friend, you can’t go wrong.
This uncritical approach took a turn for the worse in the last episode of the series, which originally featured interviews with the architects and engineers of 9/11 Truth. It is a conspiracy group that pushes the completely disproved idea that the World Trade Center was destroyed by controlled demolition, rather than by the two huge planes that hit it. After the backlash from critics who had seen the early drafts, Lee recut the finale, removing all conspiracy theory footage from the group. It is certainly for the best.
Lee treats his interviewees like friends, and once you’re his friend, you can’t go wrong.
But all traces of the plot have not disappeared. In the third episode, Lee questions former flight attendant Curtis Beatty about Flight 93, the fourth plane hijacked on September 11. Passengers and crew, after learning of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, attempted to regain control of the plane. It ended up crashing in Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board, but likely preventing terrorists from targeting another building and murdering many more.
This account is not controversial among experts and journalists. However, some conspiracy theorists have suggested that the US military shot down the plane. Beatty embraces this debunked version of events, and it looks like Lee could. “Do you think the flight crew and passengers crashed with the plane? Or was he shot? Lee asks. “I think he was shot,” Beatty replies.
Lee, as usual, doesn’t rush him, and no one gets to dispute his claim. Anyone watching the documentary will come away with the impression that the conspiracy theory is at least believable. Which seems disrespectful to say the least to the people on the plane who sacrificed their lives to prevent the mass murder.
It’s easy to see why Lee doesn’t want to contradict his interview subject. Beatty is charming and charming, and obviously overwhelmed with grief, when he talks about his fellow flight attendants who have passed away. “Epicenters” seeks to create a community of goodwill à la New York Capra. Beatty fits perfectly.
Lee initially thought that 9/11 Truth Architects and Engineers could also fit into this community. The relevant footage was gone by the time I saw the last episode, but it’s not hard to see why Lee was persuaded. On the one hand, local and state authorities have misled New Yorkers about the aftereffects of the smoke on first responders and residents. It was probably unintentional, but later congressional obstruction of medical and financial benefits was not. Lee wants to be on the little guy’s side. Part of the way you do it is being wary of the big guy.
And there are plenty of other reasons to be wary of the big guy. Trump really lied about Covid-19 for political gain. Cuomo too. George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There really is a massive and coordinated effort to sabotage and harm black people in this country. Some plots are real.
But many, if not most conspiracies, are not. And part of how people make a difference is looking to leaders and people they trust to separate truth from fiction. Everyone likes to think of themselves as independent thinkers. But most of us, most of the time, rely on others to help us understand what we believe and who we are. Lee’s documentary aims to anchor New York and America in a shared experience of grief, resilience and love. He is successful in many ways. But sometimes, unfortunately, love is not the truth.