and Its Consequences
May 13, 2002
In HBO's cathartic Telling Nicholas, a family faces
giving a Sept. 11 victim's son the worst news of all THE ATTACKS OF
SEPT. 11, goes the saying, did not kill 3,000 people; they killed
one person 3,000 times. But TV has focused mostly on Sept. 11's enormity:
CBS's 9/11 celebrated the hundreds of fire fighters who died
at the World Trade Center; HBO's forthcoming In Memoriam gives
a God's-eye view of the Giuliani administration's response. The event
was so massive, its effects so sweeping and its images so staggering,
that like the fallen towers themselves, it defies human scale.
"I THINK SHE'S IN NEW JERSEY": Shielded from the truth by his protective
family, Nicholas, 7, created fantasies to rationalize his mother's
But in the wrenching Telling Nicholas
(HBO, May 19, 10 p.m. E.T.), James Ronald Whitney does something
different: he limns 9/11's emotional and social complexity by tracing
the stories behind two flyers posted for missing victims. The first
leads him to the Staten Island home of Michele Lanza, whose family
has not figured out how to tell her bright-eyed son Nicholas, 7,
that his mother is never coming back. Granted intimate access over
10 days, Whitney finds the Lanzas overwhelmed by emotional stress
and circling to protect Nicholas - who tells himself his mom is
lost in New Jersey or in a helicopter.
Michele's estranged husband Robert has arrived
from Virginia, obligated but terrified to tell Nicholas the truth,
and it becomes clear that some in the family blame Robert (a Fundamentalist
Christian and cultural outsider) for Michele's having to work and,
thus, for her death. One Lanza sister becomes catatonic; another
is fixated on a bogus Nostradamus prediction about the attacks circulating
on the Internet.
Michele's mother is consumed with anger at
Muslims: "I want them tortured," she rages. "Men,
women, children." As if to counter this reaction, Whitney traces
another flyer to the Brooklyn home of Shabbir Ahmed, a Bangladeshi
waiter killed in the attacks, and finds his family grieving as well,
while also afraid about the repercussion for them as Muslims. Ahmed's
teenage son Thambir becomes Whitney's assistant on the documentary
and ends up bonding with Nicholas.
In these little moments of connection, Telling
Nicholas, can be cathartic and even funny, but it is not
easy to watch. When Robert finally breaks the news, the moment is
raw, discomfitingly private yet strangely mediated: we eavesdrop
from the vantage point of the therapist, brought in to coach Robert,
who is listening Cyrano-like over headphones on the front lawn of
the Lanza house. Nicholas is overwhelmed by tears and confusion
- he wants his mom back, he wants a new mom, he wants to go to the
local dollar store, he wants to pray, he's afraid of dying. And
yet within moments he collects himself and consoles his grandmother.
We see him get stronger, if not better. It is a familiar triteness
to say that America "loses its innocence" in a tragedy.
The terrible thing that Telling Nicholas shows is what really
happens: one child loses his innocence, thousands of times.
-- James Poniewozik