September 11 and Hollywood: How Movies Can Help Make Our Past Real — Or Unreal

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

“It was just like a movie.”


A cliché, yes, but as is often the case, that phrase became a cliché for a reason. The frequency with which those words were repeated in the weeks and months after Sept. 11, 2001, was a striking testament to the role movies have come to play in how we process and interpret reality.

A century ago, one might have heard remarks like “It was like a novel” or “It was like a play.” Imaginative scenarios have always been important to our efforts to understand and deal with the world we live in — particularly when reality outstrips our experiences. Children play house and grow up with fairy tales that speak to coming of age. Military and medical trainees prepare for the eventualities they will face with simulated or imagined crises.

I watched the World Trade Center towers burn and fall with my own eyes from a sixth-floor balcony of the building where I worked. Still, the media images, close up and so often repeated, threaten to blot out my memory of what I saw. I’m grateful for my last memory of the Twin Towers prior to 9/11: Just the week before, Suz and I stood atop the Empire State Building with Sarah (then 6) and David (3).

Ironically, as I pointed out the towers to the kids, I appealed to a movie image: “That’s where Spider-Man trapped the bad guys’ helicopter!” I had a QuickTime teaser trailer for the first Spider-Man movie on my computer, and they had repeatedly watched Spider-Man trap a helicopter full of bank robbers on a web stretched between the two towers.

Days later, watching the towers smoke and fall on television, Sarah struggled to put together her memories of the week before, the Spider-Man trailer and the horrific images on the TV screen. “If we were on the Empire State Building today,” she asked Suz, “would it still look like that?” I never found out whether she meant “how it looks on TV now” or “how it looked at the time.”

That Spider-Man trailer was one of the first casualties in Hollywood’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks. The sequence had never been intended to appear in the film, but after 9/11, the trailer itself was quickly yanked from theaters and from the Internet. (I still have a copy on my computer.)

In the following months, images of the WTC towers were hastily removed from upcoming films. In some cases, they were digitally removed from shots (e.g., Zoolander, Serendipity); other films simply kept the view north of Lower Manhattan (e.g., Stuart Little 2). Some movies deemed to tread too close to 9/11 territory were postponed (e.g., the Arnold Schwarzeneggar vehicle Collateral Damage) or scrapped altogether (e.g., a Jackie Chan project called Nosebleed about a WTC window washer who uncovers a plot to destroy the towers).

Hollywood’s timorous caution may have been the opposite of what audiences wanted. In the weeks after 9/11, DVD rentals for explosive escapism like Die Hard and Independence Day rose sharply. In theaters, reportedly, Zoolander’s bowdlerized shots of Lower Manhattan were booed by audiences, while the appearance of the towers in Glitter elicited cheers.

On the other hand, release dates for Black Hawk Down and Behind Enemy Lines were moved up. Black Hawk Down, in particular, connected with audiences, with its eerily familiar images and themes: a smoke trail rising from an urban skyline; a pair of devastating blows struck by an invisible enemy, while people watched helplessly on video screens in real time.

By 2005, 9/11 awareness and post-9/11 experiences were filtering into movies in various ways. Steven Spielberg digitally restored the Twin Towers to the Manhattan skyline for the final scene in Munich, thematically linking the Palestinian-Israeli violence in his film with the WTC attacks and the war on terror. Spielberg’s War of the Worlds likewise capitalized on 9/11 imagery — ash-covered survivors, walls covered with photos of missing loved ones — though without any evident commentary or point to make.

More intriguingly, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins pitted the Caped Crusader against the Legion of Shadows, a secret society led by the Arabic-named Ra’s al-Ghul, dedicated to exterminating decadent societies through weapons of mass destruction. The league even used decapitation. Three years later, The Dark Knight gave this theme a subversive twist by cross-examining the problematic methods Batman used to combat the Joker,  including hacking mobile phones across Gotham City (shades of warrantless wiretaps) and outright torture (which notably failed both times Batman tried it).

I will always be grateful that the first Hollywood film to directly take on Sept. 11 itself was Paul Greengrass’ unforgettable United 93, a responsible, restrained, respectful recounting, seen through the lens of the day’s lone bittersweet triumph: the actions of the passengers on the fourth plane who forced a crash-landing, preventing a final attack on Washington, D.C. (probably the Capitol).

To me, United 93 has always felt like dodging a bullet. Here is a film that is neither a rah-rah action movie nor a political screed à la Syriana. In time, we did get the rah-rah action movie, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, while Greengrass himself went on to make Green Zone, a skewed post-9/11 “no WMD” political screed. But Hollywood’s first dramatic take on 9/11 itself was and is a powerful tribute to the first act of resistance to the terrorists.

Why is this important? Because in our culture, as my friend Peter Chattaway has noted, “something doesn’t seem ‘real’ until a movie has been made about it.” A movie about an event can be an important step in fully assimilating what happened, which in turn can be part of healing. That’s why audiences cheered the towers in Glitter and jeered their absence in Zoolander. Pretending it never happened was the opposite of comforting. People didn’t want to forget — they wanted to remember. To gloss over the whole thing would be like photo-shopping departed loved ones out of family photographs.

Of course, that same power to make an event “real” can also make it horribly unreal, given a movie like, say, Pearl Harbor. World Trade Center is not a bad film, but it struck too many false notes for me. Besides, in focusing on the WTC first responders, Stone’s film told a story of heroism, but also of futility and victimization. Ground Zero was the terrorists’ great victory, not ours. Our first victory against the terrorists, grim though it was, was won on that field in Pennsylvania where United 93 went down in flames.

To commemorate the past, to make it “real,” is in a way to make it present again — but also, in a way, to affirm its provenance in the past. A funeral service or an anniversary visit to a grave is an occasion to remember a life, but it also helps us wrap our minds around the fact that the one we loved is gone. The very immediacy of United 93 highlights the turning point of a world to which there is no going back. Watching United 93, we realize that the passengers on that plane could have been any of us, yet what happened that day could not happen today — because now we would know what to do, and the terrorists know that we know.

Toward the end of United 93 is a moving sequence in which passengers choke out the words of the Our Father. It’s an ironic coda to a decade of mismanagement of the Ground Zero site, where the 9/11 memorial is only now being dedicated, that Mayor Bloomberg has prohibited prayer and participation by religious leaders at the dedication ceremony. Somehow Bloomberg’s prayer-less dedication makes me more appreciative of the prayerful moments in United 93, which I’ve said for years is as fitting a memorial to the victims and heroes of 9/11 as we could hope for, whatever might ultimately happen at Ground Zero.

September 11 2001