Back to 9/11

April 25, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

It was the darkest day since November 22, 1963. For those who awoke on that crisp, sunny morning and went to sleep under a cloud of anxiety and uncertainty, September 11, 2001 will not soon be forgotten. The passage of five years has mercifully dimmed the memory even for those thousands of families who were diminished on that day. Now, Hollywood is asking movie-goers to do the unthinkable: revisit 9/11.

2006 offers three chances to turn back the clock five years. The made-for-cable Flight 93 and the higher profile United 93 take us aboard the only hijacked plane that did not crash into a building. World Trade Center takes us to Ground Zero, offering a view from the inside looking out. All three films were reputedly made with exceeding caution and sensitivity toward the material and the survivors. Both Flight 93 and United 93 received input from the families of those who died on the plane. World Trade Center used its real-life subjects as consultants. (From here on, I will confine myself to the two theatrical features.)

Three questions hang in the air around these productions. Is it too soon? Where is the line between art and exploitation, and do they cross it? And who is going to pay to relive 9/11? Let me offer a few thoughts, with one caveat: neither I nor any other critic has yet seen World Trade Center - it doesn't open until August. But United 93 has become my first 4-star movie of 2006.

Too soon? I can understand that the wound is still raw, especially for those who lost loved ones on 9/11. But no one can say how long is long enough, when the statute of limitations runs out. Is it more acceptable that Tora! Tora! Tora! wasn't made until 29 years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Is it more acceptable that filmmakers waited 46 years to make A Night to Remember, about the sinking of Titanic? There have already been dozens of 9/11 documentaries. As long as the director employs sensitivity and restraint, why is a feature film unacceptable? And there is an argument to be made for films being produced so soon after the tragedy. When viewers watch the movies 50 years from now, they will be seeing a record that was not made from a long distance, but from those who were still close enough to feel the heat.

What about the danger of exploitation? It's certainly there. And it's a fine line, easily crossed. The studios funding these movies are in business to make money, and they expect these productions to turn a profit. But the final power rests in the hands of the directors - Paul Greengrass for United 93 and Oliver Stone for World Trade Center. We must put our faith in these men that they are telling a story from the heart, not one designed to pack theaters. This means avoiding jingoism and politics. It means sticking to the known facts and not fictionalizing them to make them more appealing or "cinematic." It means touching nearly everyone who sees the film. United 93 accomplishes that. We can hope the same will be true of World Trade Center. It's easy to identify exploitation. It leaves a viewer feeling unclean. For a sampling, try 2001's Pearl Harbor or 1953's Titanic. Hopefully, there will never be a 9/11 film that needs to be placed in that category.

Will anyone see it? This is a hard question to answer. United 93 is one of the best films of the last two years. Yet I can readily understand why viewers will not be lining up at the box office to see it. The subject matter is painful. Those who go to the movies to be entertained will find little to appreciate here. Yet there is a lingering fascination about 9/11. Every television documentary has scored impressive ratings. People are curious. They want to understand every detail about what happened, how it happened, and how lessons can be learned to prevent something like it from happening again. So, will United 93 and World Trade Center succeed at the box office? My answer is that I don't know. I can usually predict how well a film will do, but these two confound me. My best guess is that there are audiences for the films, but they will not be blockbusters. Many of those who want to see them will wait for the DVDs.

United 93 will likely get a Best Picture Oscar nomination. My gut tells me it will win the award, but a lot depends on how good World Trade Center is. The simple fact is, no matter what Hollywood comes up with between now and December 31, it won't match the power, tragedy, and heroism evident in United 93. And no fictional drama will resonate as strongly with audiences. Those who see this film will recognize that it's not too soon and the production stays far away from the line dividing art from exploitation. For World Trade Center, we'll have to wait and hope. Oliver Stone is a controversial figure, but my guess is that he won't mess this one up. This is one time when the importance of the project should trump his ego.