Flags of Our Firemen

New CNN documentary explores a 9/11 mystery

Mr. Franklin's iconic 9/11 photo. (

Mr. Franklin’s iconic 9/11 photo.

While many of America’s most famous flags—the original star-spangled banner and Old Glory, to name two—can be found in museums across the country, kept safely behind glass-enclosed cases, the most storied flag of Sept. 11, 2001, is nowhere to be found.

That flag, which was captured in a photo by Thomas E. Franklin of The Bergen Record on the afternoon of the attacks—an image that bears a striking resemblance to Joe Rosenthal’s indelible black-and-white Iwo Jima picture, thanks to three firefighters dutifully hoisting the stars and stripes at Ground Zero—is the subject of Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s succinctly titled new documentary, The Flag, which premieres this week on CNN.

Featuring interviews with former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and former New York City fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen, along with photographers, reporters and first-responders, the film is a deep investigation into the mysterious story of the flag, which was originally yanked from a yacht docked near the World Trade Center but disappeared later that evening. (For a while, a larger flag was passed off as the real one—and was even given to the Navy—but the owners, consulted in the film, were quick to claim it was too big to have been the one from the photograph.)

By zeroing in on the events of the day, and the ensuing weeks and months, the filmmakers have also made a movie that seeks to say something about the stories we as a nation tell ourselves in the wake of tragedy and how those stories measure up to what really took place.

“It’s about the mythology of what unfolded in the aftermath,” Mr. Tucker told the Transom in a recent conversation, adding: “The point wasn’t finding the flag but trying to understand what happened.”

To reconstruct past events, Mr. Tucker and Ms. Epperlein sifted through thousands of photos, videos and documents (made available through the Freedom of Information Act).

“What drew me to the flag story was that it was the only positive image taken that day in a day of death and horror,” David Friend, Vanity Fair’s creative editor and the author of the monograph on which the documentary is loosely based, said. “This is a picture that gave us some hope and promise and some sense of the future.”

Mr. Tucker agreed. “It was the only picture that offered any kind of solace or hope or anything,” he said. “There wasn’t the sense of defeat in it. When you look at other images of Ground Zero, it feels like a tremendous sense of loss.”

Still, Mr. Tucker believes, without pointing any fingers, that the photo has been appropriated for sentimental myth-making, in New York and across the nation, which “doesn’t deal with the reality of what happened.”

“There’s been no real discussion of what this country’s gone through in the last decade,” Mr. Tucker told the Transom. “What’s the appropriate way to memorialize?”

It’s a particularly important question to consider as the 9/11 museum—which was flooded during Superstorm Sandy, the same week the documentary was given the go-ahead by CNN—prepares to open next spring.

“The museum opening is when the conversation about 9/11 is going to start,” Mr. Tucker declared.

With the release of their new film, Mr. Tucker and Ms. Epperlein may just set that conversation in motion ahead of time.