09/10/2011 01:26 pm ET Updated May 31, 2013

Remembering 9/11: A Fitting Double Feature

Two weeks ago, I sat down with my 21-year-old son to watch9/11, the first of two outstanding films dealing with the terrorist attack that changed our country forever.

Granted, I'd seen it before and he hadn't, but even I was struck by just how shaken he seemed at the closing credits. Not to minimize any of the pain and outrage arising from the event that still transfixes us, but much of the 9/11 story and imagery had already been seared in my brain, and I had to remind myself that my boy was only eleven when it all happened.

Back then he had naturally viewed what took place through the lens of a child, so that this screening became his first experience of the tragedy as an adult.

I don't exaggerate when I say it was an important and formative experience of him, and thus I encourage fellow parents of young adults to watch this (and my other pick) as a family.

Here's something else that hit me right between the eyes on watching 9/11 again: in that terrible moment when the fortress of America, a place we'd long felt was safe, was so utterly violated, how those on the scene performed with such gallantry, and how we came together as one people to honor their actions, affirm our country's highest ideals, and simply mourn together.

Yes -- many have remarked on this phenomenon, then and since, but this doc actually makes you feel it.

It was a period of national cohesion we have not felt since the outbreak of the Second World War, and it dissipated all too quickly.

Recently, many pundits have weighed in with revealing insights on all that has changed around the world, both socially and politically, as a result of 9/11. While global developments overall constitute a decidedly "mixed bag," there are concrete signs of progress, most notably the elimination of Osama bin Laden and the weakening of Al-Qaeda.

Still, I feel the key perspective for Americans today may be of a more emotional nature: specifically, how do we recapture even a small measure of the unifying spirit that sprang from this disaster a full decade ago?

At a time of profound cynicism, uncertainty and frustration within our own borders, if nothing else, these two amazing films remind us that in the very worst of times, it's possible to find the best in ourselves.

That's a lesson well worth pondering right now.

9/11 (2002) -- In the fall of 2001, French brothers Gedeon and Jules Naudet were filming a documentary about a 21-year-old NYC firefighter named Tony Benatatos. The brothers were given nearly complete access to Benatatos' firehouse on Duane street in lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. They happened to be shooting during the tragic events that transpired on September 11th, capturing virtually the only footage of the jetliner striking the first tower, and filming the subsequent call to action as all the firefighters in the division raced to the scene. Later, their camera continued profiling the men as they dealt with the aftermath of the attacks. While they never set out to make a documentary about 9/11, fate and timing put the Naudet brothers in a unique position to create the most devastating chronicle of this still unthinkable event, capturing all the shock and horror of that day as it actually happened. To their credit, the filmmakers (also including James Hanlon and Rob Klug) don't shy away from portraying all the confusion and carnage of 9/11, but also manage to relate an incredibly moving human story with sensitivity and compassion. What comes through most indelibly is the remarkable courage of those men doing their duty without hesitation on perhaps the blackest day in our nation's history. Produced and aired on CBS, 9/11 was nominated for five Emmys, and won two, including Best Nonfiction Special.

Saint of 9/11: The True Story Of Father Mychal Judge (2006) -- Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest and chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, was the first official casualty at the twin towers on the day of the 2001 terrorist attacks. There, in solidarity with his men and to help the victims, he was struck and killed by falling masonry. This beautifully photographed film pays tribute to the life and spirit of a man whose selfless ministry is fondly remembered by those who knew him best. Narrated by Sir Ian McKellen, Glenn Holsten's doc is a fitting elegy for a tremendously inspiring figure who battled his own demons as a recovering alcoholic and gay Catholic, but whose bigness of heart touched the lives of politicians, fire officials, city residents and fellow clerics. Hearing about his awe-inspiring mission to comfort AIDS victims in the '80s, and families of the victims of TWA Flight 800, that indelible Reuters photo of Judge's lifeless body being carried out of the rubble by FDNY workers only becomes more powerful and heartrending. Here was a true shepherd of his flock, who transcended his own imperfect humanity in the service of others, and in performing a final act of surpassing grace and courage. Like 9/11 itself, Father Judge should always be remembered, and thanks to this appropriately reverent film, he will be.

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