Truth and Its Consequences

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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.

But in the wrenching Telling Nicholas (HBO, May 12, 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.

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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 repercussions 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.