The year 2006 was an important one for 9/11 cinema. April saw the release of Paul Greengrass’ “United 93,” which was followed three months later by Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” — two respectful and eminently respectable pictures that, for all their visceral terror and immediacy, ushered us tentatively in the direction of hope.
“United 93” spun a heroic narrative of American lives not sacrificed in vain, while “World Trade Center” consoled us that a few good men were pulled safely from the rubble. For obvious reasons, I count both films among the more sobering moviegoing experiences of my lifetime — worthy and scrupulous but (more to my disappointment than to my surprise) not terribly difficult to shake. Which is not something I could possibly say about 9/11.
Watching both films, it was hard not to sense a certain hesitation on the part of the filmmakers, as if they’d sublimated their darkest artistic impulses to a reflexive posture of decency and restraint (particularly in the case of Stone, whose politically incendiary streak was little in evidence). They seemed to believe, instinctively, that the full devastation of what they were trying to represent would simply be too much for moviegoers to bear. They were right.
It’s telling that neither Greengrass nor Stone opted to re-create the image that leaps most readily to mind when we reflect on that terrible day. To depict the Twin Towers burning and collapsing would not only have been reductive, obscene and self-defeating, it would have exposed the essential inability of our motion pictures to reckon with a real-world crisis of this magnitude. Those who once carelessly likened the visuals of 9/11 to “something out of a movie” were wrong: The stark, undoctored horror of those low-grade TV images defeated any setpiece a Hollywood studio could concoct.
In a brilliant 2009 essay for Salon, critic Matt Zoller Seitz advanced the provocative notion that 9/11 haunts us not just because of the unthinkable loss of life it represents, but because of the perverse showmanship with which it was executed. It wasn’t a movie; it was designed to grip us in a way no movie could.
“The response to 9/11 by painters, novelists, poets, journalists, essayists, songwriters, composers, filmmakers and graphic designers has amounted to an enormous collective attempt to answer one looming artwork with countless smaller ones,” Seitz wrote, arguing that 9/11 is not just a tragedy for our nation to mourn but an image for our artists to grapple with.
To be sure, the past 10 years have seen a number of independent efforts, from the 2003 omnibus “September 11” to the recent nonfiction chronicle “Rebirth,” which have valiantly attempted to make sense of a senseless catastrophe. One of the decade’s standout documentaries is a 9/11 film by omission: James Marsh’s “Man on Wire” makes no mention of the attacks, yet its account of Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk erects a shrine to the Twin Towers that is poignant beyond words.
Five years after “United 93” and “World Trade Center,” Hollywood has yet to confront the trauma of 9/11 directly with any comparable degree of ambition or courage. The reasons are largely commercial; audiences aren’t exactly lining up for a depressing hit of reality. When studio filmmakers have explicitly addressed the topic, they’ve tended to trivialize or exploit it — a passing reference in “Love Actually” and “Final Destination 3,” or a ghoulish plot device in “Remember Me.”
It’s dispiriting to recall that in the immediate wake of 9/11, the industry responded not with a burst of artistic inspiration but a self-serving campaign of damage control. Warner Bros. postponed the October release of the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner “Collateral Damage,” which emerged four months later with a hijacking scene duly excised. Disney pushed its Tim Allen comedy “Big Trouble” from September to March, fearing negative reaction to its nukes-on-a-plane climax.
Posters and trailers featuring the Lower Manhattan skyline were hastily altered to reflect our troubling new reality. And for at least five years afterward, any film that took on 9/11 was met with earnest clucks of “Is it too soon?” — as if an artist’s response to a national tragedy were something to be timed and prepared under carefully monitored conditions, like a Jell-O mold. “No poetry after Auschwitz” seemed to have been joined by a fresh Hollywood epitaph: No blockbusters after Ground Zero.
Ten years later, all that well-meaning sensitivity has evaporated. We once thought we’d never again laugh at the preposterous sight of aliens blowing up the White House in Roland Emmerich’s pre-9/11 blockbuster “Independence Day.” Yet after a decade of Emmerich disaster epics and Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies (this year’s model featured Shia LaBoeuf treating a collapsing skyscraper like a giant Slip ‘n Slide), the studios have clearly shed their qualms about offending our delicate sensibilities.
That’s not intended as a knock on Emmerich and Bay, who boast an uncanny if unsubtle knack for tapping into our collective doom-laden fantasies. To enjoy these movies is, perhaps, to experience some superficial catharsis, to savor the masochistic spectacle of our own destruction from a safe distance, and to persuade ourselves that such worst-case scenarios remain comfortably in the realm of big-budget fiction.
Yet reassurance requires that one turn a blind eye not only to history, but also to the fact that any contemporary film offering up a scenario of mass annihilation is, like it or not, a 9/11 movie.The best of these, to my mind, have approached the subject obliquely, channeling our memories of that day in a way that doesn’t preclude thrills, but goes on to provoke moral and intellectual engagement.
A year before “United 93” and “World Trade Center,” Steven Spielberg unleashed his own 9/11 diptych with “War of the Worlds,” an apocalyptic sci-fier as trenchant and disturbing as any in modern movies, and “Munich,” whose final shot of the World Trade Center speaks volumes about the futility of trying to rationalize violence.
Serious-minded fantasy films such as Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the later installments of the “Harry Potter” series (both franchises hit theaters in 2001) are informed by a sense of evil palpable yet elastic enough to invite a host of allegorical readings. And Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is a movie profoundly shaped by 9/11, conjuring a jagged, menacing modern metropolis where no civilian is safe.
Directors like Spielberg and Nolan have shown that popular filmmaking can also be intensely personal, but the movie that strikes me as the cinema’s most wrenching, deeply felt response to 9/11 came and went all too quietly. Released in winter 2002, Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” was an elegy for New York that somehow managed to wrest meaning from the ashes.
While Lee never once mentions the event that hangs over the story like a shroud, his images — an opening sequence of the city’s Tribute in Light memorial, a conversation framed against the gaping hole of Ground Zero — speak eloquently and despairingly to our collective anguish. Yet the film isn’t embalmed by grief; it’s an angry, bristling, exhilarating piece of work that insists on rage and profane humor as essential expressions of human resilience. Suffused with death even as it pulses with life, “25th Hour” reminds us of everything we lost on 9/11 and, improbable as it seems even 10 years later, everything we still have to live for.
9/11 lessons: Patriotic themes proliferate | A time for restraint | Foreign TV tackles U.S. tragedy | Decade’s Brit pics take nuanced look at 9/11 | Cacophony of voices dull anniversary