The Outsider (2021)

The work continues even when the direction is unclear.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Michael Shulan, Alice Greenwald, Bob Garfield (narration), Clifford Chanin, David Handschuh, Michael Kimmelman, Michelle Breslauer, Norm Dannen, Lou Mendes, Joe Daniels, Jan Ramirez, Lynn Rasic, Michael Frazier, Melissa Doi, Phillip Kennicott, Tom Hennes, Amy Weisser. Directed by Steven Rosenbaum and Pamela Yoder

 

The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, is something that has left an indelible mark on America and all Americans. Regardless of political affiliation, skin color, religious background, gender or ethnicity, we all feel pain and sorrow at the thought of that heinous day. It remains a sore point that in some ways requires a certain amount of sensitivity.

When it was decided to create a memorial and museum at Ground Zero, there was a certain amount of hand-wringing at the thought of a tourist attraction on what is, to many, sacred ground (then again, ask a Lakota what they think of the Mount Rushmore gift shop). One of the people that the board of executives for the proposed museum contacted was Michael Shulan.

Shulan, a writer, had an empty storefront near Ground Zero in which he had taped a photo he had taken of the Twin Towers. That seemed to strike a chord in other New Yorkers as others began to post their own pictures there as well. Soon, Shulan was curating an impromptu art exhibit. He became, quite unintentionally, the world’s leading expert on images taken from 9-11.

Shulan was something of a novice when it came to setting up a new museum; other members of the board were not, including Alice Greenwald, the chairman of the board. Alice, who had helped put together a Holocaust museum in New York, had her own ideas of how the museum should be. Shulan saw it as a place that asked questions rather than provide answers; Greenwald saw it as more providing the latter.

This fly-on-the-wall documentary goes behind the scenes of the conception and design of the memorial, and follows along with the construction. We see the board grappling with which images to include and which might be too graphic. We listen to the heartbreaking 9-11 call of Melissa Doi, and watch them also consider how much of it to make available.

These types of issues are fascinating, but we spend an awful lot of time on the office politics of putting this museum together. We never get a sense of how reliving 9-11 every day for years affects those in charge with curating the memorial to it. For some reason, the filmmakers chose initially to make Shulan their focus, but as the film goes on he becomes less and less a part of the proceedings. We get a sense of his frustrations (and the film title refers specifically to him, after all) but he fades out of focus somewhat unaccountably.

The movie is kind of insular, and it doesn’t help that Bob Garfield’s narration makes this look and sound more like a story on 60 Minutes. While the aspect of being privy to meetings and discussions about important issues gives us a sense of how decisions were arrived at, we never really get much in-depth discussion with the principals to add any sort of nuance to what we are seeing. So while the subject might be intriguing, it feels like the filmmakers didn’t really do any kind of follow-up once the meetings had adjourned. This was never going to be an easy task and it was never going to please everybody – but that doesn’t mean a documentary about the process had to do the same.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating backstage look at how office politics basically color everything.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the images might be too disturbing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing 9/11 images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shulan left the museum board on the day it opened to the public in 2014.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet;  Metacritic: No score yet,
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Museum Town
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Show

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