The incisive and absorbing "16 Acres" recaps 11 years of scrapped plans and anguished debates over ground zero, the site of Manhattan's fallen World Trade Center.
The documentary tells a quintessential New York story of movers and shakers, but it's also a fascinating portrait of municipal and private interests trying to make headway in the charged atmosphere of devastating personal loss and wounded national pride.
Through new interviews and archival footage, director-editor Richard Hankin (whose editing credits include "Capturing the Friedmans") finds a sure pulse in the ongoing saga of how to rebuild on property that many consider hallowed ground.
Architecture critic Philip Nobel, who serves in a sense as the film's talking-head narrator, notes that never before has an office building been required to deliver so much symbolic value — to stand for collective healing, defiance and renewal.
Not for nothing did then-Gov. George Pataki dub it the "freedom tower" in the middle of a speech, apparently without first consulting any of the concerned parties.
As the film makes clear, the project has provided ample opportunity for flag-waving and political posturing. Nobel and Esquire writer Scott Raab provide sharp and frequently funny commentary, pointing out the surfeit of ground zero ceremonies amid countless setbacks and delays, and the "Rovian political tactics" of architects competing for the commission.
Raab also sounds a pre-Sandy warning about the low-lying site's vulnerability.
Whether it's following the protests of a deceased firefighter's sister or tracing a humanity-restoring biography of vilified developer Larry Silverstein, Hankin's evenhanded film builds a concise, enlightening account from a decade of confusion.
Rating: No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena