My first reaction to the documentary "In Memoriam: New York City, 9/11/01" (8 p.m., Sunday, HBO) was dread. Not again, I thought. I didn't want to watch new, unseen video of airliners hitting the twin towers. I didn't think I could handle hearing the phone messages from loved ones trapped in the burning buildings, or witness the footage of desperate office workers plunging to certain death. I didn't think I could bear the chaos, hear the screams or hold back the tears once more. To use an "Oprah"-esque cliche, I didn't want to "go there," again.
But I did watch "In Memoriam," and I found myself mesmerized. As I expected, it's a searing and brutal experience. But it's also something I never imagined a beautiful film.
The makers of "In Memoriam" assembled photos and video footage from more than 100 amateur and professional filmmakers to create a panoramic tribute to New York City's most desperate and heroic hours. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani acts as a guide and narrator.
The moving score to "In Memoriam" features music by American composers, including Aaron Copland, Bernard Herrmann, Charles Ives, and Samuel Barber. This early-20th century music blends remarkably well with the film's pastiche of 21st century digital photography to create a stirring and heroic testament to personal loss, civic courage and national patriotism. Even familiar standards like Barber's "Adagio for Strings" and Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" are used here to startling effect.
Don't watch "In Memoriam" unless you have more tears to shed, or unless you are ready to get sad and angry all over again. While intelligently crafted, "In Memoriam" still has the impact of a body blow. It's a powerful reminder that more than 3,000 people were murdered that sunny morning and that America was bloodied without warning and without justification. Citing victims from more than 115 countries, Giuliani observes, "It wasn't just an attack on America; it was an attack on much of the civilized world."
Nothing is harder to dramatize than a story about a writer writing, unless it's about writer who is not writing. "Last Call" (7 p.m., Saturday, Showtime) makes a stylish effort to recreate the last, desperate days of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, as he battled booze, hallucinations and bad health to complete his Hollywood novel "The Last Tycoon."
Jeremy Irons ("Reversal of Fortune," "Lolita") brings his trademark aura of elegant dissipation to his performance. By 1939, Fitzgerald, the Jazz age novelist and bon vivant, found himself out of money and his novels out-of-print. A dipsomaniacal relic from another era, he hires a sunny stenographer and aspiring novelist, Frances (Neve Campbell), to take dictation and serve as his personal assistant.
While "Last Call" is gorgeous to look at, and offers Irons another memorable role, there's simply not enough here to sustain a two-hour film. "Party of Five" star Campbell doesn't exactly hold her own here, but it's not entirely her fault. As Frances, she's given little to do but baby-sit a legend and play midwife to "The Last Tycoon," Fitzgerald's last, incomplete novel, published after his death in 1940.
Tonight's other highlights
"America's Heroes: The Bravest vs. the Finest" (7 p.m., NBC) presents an hour of taped highlights of a charity football game between New York firefighters and policemen.
Will Smith stars in the 1998 conspiracy thriller "Enemy of the State" (7 p.m., ABC).
Cuba Gooding, Jr. is host to "Rockin' for the USA" (8 p.m., CBS) a musical special taped aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.
Jack Lemmon and James Garner star in the 1996 comedy "My Fellow Americans" (8 p.m., NBC).
The Sundance Channel kicks off a five-night festival of modern Japanese horror films beginning with the U.S. premiere of "Audition" (midnight, today); series runs nightly through Wednesday.