Those 9/11 MoviesAugust 08, 2006
When I'm asked if I recommend either United 93 or World Trade Center, I begin my response as follows: "If you can handle a movie about 9/11..." The qualifier is not meant to be sarcastic or condescending. It is not intended as a put-down. There are many people out there who, no matter how powerful, life-affirming, or uplifting the film may be, are not emotionally prepared to re-live any part of that September day five years ago. (My wife is among their number.) 9/11 has impacted everyone differently. For those who lost loved ones on that day, for those who were stranded somewhere, and for those who sat stunned in front of a television set, it became a deeply personal experience. It's difficult to say whether more tears were shed on that day or on November 22, 1963.
Five years later, reactions to the events are as varied as they were in 2001. Some seek to examine their memories or find meaning by confronting things through movies, books, and articles. Others find there to be too much pain in remembering and do their best to avoid reminders - not an easy thing with incidents that have become a national obsession. I think to a degree we're all conflicted about 9/11 movies. Thankfully, the two theatrical releases this year have approached the subject with sensitivity and respect, and there's not a whiff of exploitation to be scented. The same cannot be said of the countless web conspiracy "documentaries," which make a mockery out of the day and its victims.
This isn't the first time movies have been made about difficult subjects. There are Pearl Harbor vets who cannot sit through Tora! Tora! Tora!. (I will not mention Pearl Harbor, because I don't know anyone who can sit through that, and it has more to do with execution than the subject matter.) There are Vietnam vets who have trouble with Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. But there are two key differences between those events and 9/11. In 2001, it was civilians, not soldiers, who were targets. And there has never before been such blanket media coverage. Consider that almost everyone who lost a loved one on that day was subjected to the image of their friend or family member dying. (I'm referring to a general image, not a specific one.)
The theory of how to deal with these movies is simple enough. Most people understand by now how they react to 9/11. They know whether they will be able to cope with a movie about the subject. So, those who are capable can attend the movie. Those who cannot will stay away. It's a voluntary thing. Unfortunately, life doesn't work that way when there's marketing involved. That's where things get messy; that's where I become conflicted.
Movies, even ones about 9/11, are made with the intent of turning a profit. Crass, but true. The bottom line for both United 93 and World Trade Center is that the studios expected them to make money. For a movie to make money, it has to have an audience. That means people have to know it's out there. That means advertising - print ads, television commercials, theaterical trailers. Suddenly, 9/11 images are out there, everywhere. People who would rather forget, or at least not be brutally reminded, are given no choice. I feel for them, but I don't have an answer. These are tremendous motion pictures. They deserve to be seen by those who are able to endure them. The sad part is the collateral damage.
Is it "too soon," as some have argued? I once wondered that myself. Having seen the movies, I don't think so. Why wait? So the memories soften and fade? By making these films so close to the events that inspired them, there can be an immediacy that future productions will be unable to capture. I am a believer that one of many reasons why Pearl Harbor failed is that the filmmakers had no sense of what the day - December 7, 1941 - meant. Spielberg connected with the past in Saving Private Ryan - but he's a rare director. 50 years from now, it's more likely to be a Michael Bay than a Steven Spielberg telling the tale of 9/11, and it will ring false. This close to the actuality, the moment is too fresh, too raw for artificiality to creep in.
I am a believer that United 93 will find a wider audience when it reaches DVD than it found in theaters. The experience of watching such an emotional story is something many viewers may have been unwilling to expose themselves to in a public forum. At home, it's a different matter. I suspect something similar will be true of World Trade Center.
Both movies are about heroism. One is about a group of people who overcome terror and act to avert a catastrophe. They do not survive. The other is about people who risk their lives to save others, then end up being saved themselves. They do survive. Two films that find something positive in the black hole of negatives that comprise 9/11. Do I recommend them? Without question - if you can handle a movie about 9/11.
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