Released: 8th September
Seen: 22nd September
Twenty-one years ago, the world was rocked to its core by the September 11th attacks. The horrific image of those towers coming down is burned into the memory of everyone who was alive at that time, it felt like a moment that would change the world and it’s fair to say that it did. What’s seemingly less well remembered, or at least less talked about, is that a week after September 11th a bunch of letters containing anthrax were mailed to multiple news outlets with a handwritten note. This was followed by several more letters to newspapers, networks and sitting senators that contained the deadly anthrax spores. In total 5 people died and 17 more were infected by the disease and the story of the investigation which took the better part of a decade makes for a pretty good documentary.
The Anthrax Attacks details everything that happened during the horrific event, from talking to relatives of the victims to detailing how easily these spores were spread through the mail. It also details the investigation by the FBI and the various avenues of investigation they went down until their eventual determination of the culprit, one Bruce Ivins, who also gets to have his say in the documentary through recreations and emails read aloud by notable actor Clark Gregg. Over the course of The Anthrax Attacks, you get a fairly detailed look into the absolute insanity that defined this attack and the aftermath that still leaves a lot of questions to be asked.
Using largely talking head interviews and news footage, The Anthrax Attacks gives a pretty decent timeline of events and makes sure that the potential danger of the situation is never that far out of the viewers’ minds. The film literally opens with a pretty grim description of just what Anthrax can do to someone and how it can linger around for quite some time, using the descriptor “it has to kill in order to survive” to open the film ensures that there is no mistaking just what everyone was dealing with. Throughout The Anthrax Attacks, it is repeatedly drilled into the audience’s head that if they don’t figure this out, it would be obscenely easy for whoever is sending these spores out to do so on a massive scale and wreak havoc that we have never seen before or since.
It also takes pains to make sure the more complex scientific ideas are explained in such a way that even if you don’t grasp every single detail, you’re able to follow along with the key elements of what happened. You don’t need a PhD in chemistry to understand what’s going on, thankfully because there’s a lot of heavy stuff to get through and it’s already a hard enough time just keeping up with the legal investigation, it’s nice of them to make the scientific stuff as easy as possible.
One thing that The Anthrax Attacks does that is more hit and miss is that it hired Clark Gregg to be the voice of Bruce Ivins, the alleged culprit who masterminded everything… who cannot be interviewed because he took his own life on August 1st of 2008. The implication the film makes is that it was because he was about to be indicted, but that’s not exactly clear. When they use Clark to just read out Bruce’s emails or give voice to the interviews that were recorded it mostly works, allowing us to see this man as a human being instead of just as a disembodied emotionless voice… however, the downside is that it means The Anthrax Attacks has an actor on hand and like a lot of documentaries do when they try to recreate certain events, they play a little too much to the audience.
There are moments in The Anthrax Attacks where there’ll be a serious discussion about just what happened that might mean that Bruce Ivins was guilty, or at least why he was a prominent suspect. It’s dramatic, all the interview subjects talk about what they were doing that made them think they had their man and you can hear the music building… and then smash cut to Clark Gregg in a very silly moustache (because Bruce Ivins had a moustache) who just stares directly into the camera like he wants to murder it and all the drama is gone, replaced with unintentional comedy. This happens even during some of the recreations, they want to lay on so thick that Bruce was a weird guy that they push it to comic proportions in the elements that they have full control over which just pulls you out of the film.
It also doesn’t help that, once Bruce does commit suicide, there’s not much narrative left. They kind of power through the rest like they’re trying to do a cleanup. They can’t linger on the doubt that people had about if Bruce did it or not, they relegate some of the footage of serious questions about the case to a montage that plays over the credits, but they refuse to actually take the time to talk about it. It just feels like something that should be really looked into, maybe the filmmakers just didn’t want to make a definitive claim on either side and just threw everything together, either way, it leads to an unsatisfactory ending for an insanely dramatic story.
The Anthrax Attacks is still a decent film, a handy way to explain the timetable of this strange and horrific set of attacks that makes it as digestible as one could possibly hope for. However, it just can’t help but fall into some classic crime documentary tropes when it has the chance to use real actors and it just ends way too quickly to be a truly definitive documentary about these horrific events. It’s certainly going to be helpful as a way to track the events, but it had the chance to be something much more than it ends up being.