“The Flag,” which premieres on CNN tonight, September 4th, at 9pm, serves as a softer counterpart to “9/11: The Falling Man,” the 2006 documentary Henry Singer made about the search for the identity of the jumper in Richard Drew’s iconic image from the World Trade Center. Drew’s unforgettable photograph of a man plunging headfirst past rows of windows on a building that would later crumble was initially deemed too troubling when it appeared in news coverage following the attack, and “9/11: The Falling Man,” which premiered on UK TV in 2006 before coming to the US on what’s now Investigation Discovery, carried with it that wounded sense of being a quest to seek out the name of someone who died horribly.
“The Flag,” directed by “Gunner Palace” filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, is centered around an image that people were actually eager to embrace after the tragedy — one shot by Thomas Franklin, a photographer for The Bergen Record, of three firefighters raising an American flag at Ground Zero, and commonly referred to as “Raising the Flag.” It’s a heartening photo, one that speaks to resilience and national spirit, one that several interviewees point out recalls Joe Rosenthal’s historical photograph from Iwo Jima. It was adapted as a symbol of hope, not to mention a best-selling Newsweek cover, appearing under the words “God Bless America.”
The first documentary to be commissioned by CNN, “The Flag” is a rather uneven attempt to figure out what happened to the titular object from the photo, which was taken off a yacht owned by older couple who lived downtown and which was apparently swapped out for a replacement before the item was held by Rudolph Giuliani at a ceremony at Yankee Stadium and flown on the USS Theodore Roosevelt on its way to Afghanistan. The mystery of what happened to the flag is, frankly, the least interesting part of this film, even as different photographers and witnesses look back at their documents and memories from that awful day. It’s a piece of fabric, not a person, and as totemic as it might be, it’s the symbolism that carries the meaning, not the item itself.
But “The Flag” also becomes a study in the ways in which grieving and a feeling of ownership over and connection to a tragedy can be messy, and it’s a livelier film in those tangents than it is in its central exploration. The photo, for instance, was to be made into a memorial by the New York City Fire Department, and how that went wrong — the sculptor was told to make the three (white) firemen more diverse in his portrayal, leading to rowdy protests over what was seen as rewriting history — is a wryly fascinating tale. The yacht owners, a colorful couple, assure the camera that if Giuliani had remained in office, he would have found their flag. Representatives from the Midwestern company that made the item talk about the demand they faced in the months after 9/11, a “challenging time for this industry.” Looking back over the journey the replacement flag took, an interviewee notes he’d been worried about passing it along to another organization for fear he wouldn’t be able to get it back.
The idea that someone would keep something of such clear importance rather than allow it to be shared, that someone might have kept it, is initially a difficult one. But it’s one the film comes to grips with in a final revelation involving a photo of someone walking away from the scene carrying what might be the answer to its mystery. There are other recollections from that day that are brought up, ones that are visceral, that are sad and illuminating, but in that late interview the need to hold on to something tangible from that day becomes immediate and suddenly understandable, an example of the way memory can be bound up in the physical.