Cinema has a long history of absorbing our traumas and re-presenting them to us as entertainment.
Sometimes the procedure is self-evident: Hundreds of morale-boosting war films were produced by Hollywood during WWII. Sometimes it’s more subtle: the disillusionment of the 1970s gave rise to depressing dramas and unsettling Vietnam War films (“The Deer Hunter,” “Coming Home”). Whatever is going on in our lives, we’ve come to rely on filmmakers to help us escape reality while also making sense of it.
Then September 11, 2001 happened. The horror of 9/11, its complex causes, and its politically polarizing effects proved nearly impossible to package into a film that would appeal to a wide audience.
Movies about the Middle East’s war, no matter how appealing their stars, routinely bombed at the box office. Instead, in the midst of a decade of violence, fear, and uncertainty, movies and moviegoers alike have sought refuge in superhero and fantasy films, two genres defined by their distance from reality.
Initially, it appeared that 9/11 would be adapted for the big screen. Witnesses and news anchors repeatedly compared the Twin Towers’ destruction – the blue sky, the roaring planes, the chaos – to something out of a big-budget action movie. But the first reaction in Hollywood was one of denial. The Twin Towers were removed from Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trailers by Columbia Pictures. The Tim Allen comedy “Big Trouble,” which featured a bomb in an airport, was delayed for several months. The title and setting of the romantic comedy “Sidewalks of New York” were enough to keep it from being released.
Hollywood’s dramatizations of 9/11 wouldn’t appear until 2006: “United 93,” a real-time drama set largely inside the plane that never reached its target (the U.S. Capitol) because of the intervention of passengers, and “World Trade Center,” which found director Oliver Stone in an atypically reverent mood. Stone would later make “W” in 2008, a similarly lenient and supportive film about George W Bush, more of a biopic which somehow managed to miss out the events of September 11 altogether, and his reputation soured because of it. Only 2004’s “Hamburg Cell,” stands out as a gripping dramatization that followed the al-Qaida plotters as their plans first took shape, but it didn’t come from Hollywood. It was a production of the UK’s Channel 4. And while I disagree with his politics, Michael Moore’s Farhrenheit 9/11 broke documentary records (the only one to pass the $100 million mark) and was a bigger achievement in cheap and biased documentary making.
Instead, most Hollywood filmmakers quickly turned their attention to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, from the downbeat “In the Valley of Elah” to the action thriller “Green Zone.” But audiences stayed away. “The Hurt Locker,” about a U.S. bomb squad in Iraq, became the lowest-grossing film of the modern era to win an Oscar for best picture.
Moviegoers just didn’t seem to want to be reminded of the event.
Terrorism and war appeared to be largely absent in popcorn action films, where America’s real-life adversaries frequently appeared on-screen. Though audiences hissed at Soviets in late-Cold War films like “Red Dawn” and “Rocky IV” (still the highest-grossing entry in that franchise), few recent films have made Arab terrorists villains. That could be due to a response to Hollywood’s constant drumbeat of celebrating diversity, making it no longer acceptable to make villains out of extremist terrorists from the Middle East.
And today’s studios would rather spend millions switching out the bad guys in a Red Dawn remake to appease China.
The acceptable screen villains these days have been more likely to wield magic wands, and screen heroes have been wearing tights and capes. It’s difficult to spot any parallels to 9/11 or the Middle East in these movies.
When 9/11 did show up in cinema, many filmmakers learned audience reactions are unpredictable.
Spike Lee’s “25th Hour,” the first major film set specifically in New York City post-9/11, received mixed reviews when it was released in late 2003. Its drug-dealing hero (Edward Norton) lived across the street from Ground Zero, but the plot had nothing to do with the attacks, prompting some to wonder if Lee was only being superficially topical.
Other films appeared to be allegorical, especially Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” released in 2005, in which an alien invasion causes a variety of reactions among Earthlings: Some go into hiding, some enlist, and some go insane. Images of helpless, falling bodies, even from spaceships, were too realistic for some viewers. In 2003, the British romantic comedy “Love Actually” took a risk by using the final phone calls of 9/11 victims in the opening voice-over (Hugh Grant did the honors). Surprisingly, it paid off: the film was a huge success. And Michael Haneke’s “Hidden” (2005), while not specifically about 9/11, nonetheless spoke brilliantly about the new anxieties and nightmares that 9/11 conjured up.
However “Remember Me” from 2010, a somber drama about a young man estranged from his father, invoked 9/11 in a way that many saw as mawkish and exploitative. Despite starring, Robert Pattinson, the film was a flop, grossing only $19 million.
Maybe the difficulty in handling the event on film is that there are many people sill alive whose retreat from the doomed twin towers has altered their perceptions to the point where the smell of their friends’ burning bodies still lingers in their nostrils or they can still hear the horrible, shattering sounds of people hitting the courtyard in front of the twin towers after jumping out of windows far above to escape the flames.
9/11 is not so much a historical event as it is a part of these people’s lives, as it is for millions of others whose souls were seared by the horrific images of that day shown live and in color on our TV screens. In that sense, any 9/11 film becomes an autobiographical portrait, similar to watching a documentary or reading a personal diary.
And even comic books have had trouble approaching the subject, when they do at all. DC Comics almost ignores the event altogether, but Marvel seems to include the event in their universe, but when acclaimed comic creator Frank Miller wrote ‘Holy Terror’, a very personal tribute to 9/11 that was originally conceived and proposed as a Batman versus Middle East terrorists story, he later changed his approach when he admitted publicly that it was “bound to offend just about everybody.” And he was right. It was released on September 28, 2011, marking a decade after he tragic event, and was immediately criticized for its depiction of Muslims, and Al-Qaeda, which was labeled as “Islamophobic,” a term we had not heard before 9/11.
Miller was recently cancelled from a UK comic convention for “bigotry” related to the decade old comic, for which he had previously apologized for. This seemed a sure sign that in the wake of 9/11, Americans have retreated into anxiety-free safe-spaces and resist critical thinking in order to avoid discomfort.
No. The story of 9/11 should include snippets of unparalleled heroism and base cowardice, as well as confusion, ineptness, and a fatal refusal to acknowledge the scope of what was happening in the skies over America that day. Leaving these painful, but necessary facts out of the Hollywood myths about 9/11 would cheapen the sacrifice of those who gave their lives and would lead to bad conclusions about the kind of country America was that day.
Maybe we’re too late for that already.
Films, comics, videogames, et al that regard 9/11 will probably be difficult for many of us to watch. Some people may sit down to expect to see something entertaining or poignant, only to be forced to get up and leave in the middle of it because the rush of memory is too painful to watch. Many fundamental Christians had a similar experience the first time they viewed Mel Gibson’s “The Passion”. But those who stick it out until the end should be rewarded with an experience that is both sobering and uplifting.
American entertainment, particularly our cinema, was once our greatest cultural gift to the rest of the world. So like it might be with the funeral of a deceased loved one, we should be able to tell our national history with a reverent and ultimately uplifting recollection, then continue onward and upward. As to whether this catastrophic event will engender any further developments in cinema, or inspire new dramas of confrontation or even catharsis, it appears that even two decades on it’s still too early to say.