Commentary Magazine


Hollywood Does 9/11

From patriotic poetry to equestrian monuments, most of the instruments that once elevated war and national tragedy into the realm of collective experience have lost their power to stir us. There is no contemporary counterpart to the Civil War’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” or Norman Rockwell’s mass-produced prints of the “Four Freedoms” from World War II. A song like “Over There,” to which America marched briskly in 1917, is as remote to contemporary sensibilities as the Bayeux Tapestry. The only artistic medium that now seems capable of informing the national mind about the shape and meaning of events is film.

It was therefore to be expected that, after a decent interval, Hollywood would address itself to the great national trauma of September 11, 2001. And so at last it has done. In movies, this has turned out to be the year of 9/11, with productions ranging from the big-budget United 93 and World Trade Center to works made for television to numerous documentaries, including one, On Native Soil, about the 9/11 Commission created by Congress to investigate and report on the history and events of that day.

Given Hollywood’s track record in depicting recent American history, there was understandably a certain amount of advance apprehension about how it would handle these difficult subjects. In particular, would full justice be done to the heroism of the day, to the police and firemen who rushed up into burning buildings and the weaponless passengers and stewardesses who charged their hijackers on United Airlines flight 93? Or would we be served up a revisionist account, one suggesting that the generally accepted version of events veiled a deeper and far-reaching web of dark motives and homegrown conspiracies?

When it was learned that World Trade Center would be directed by none other than Oliver Stone, such apprehensions seemed amply justified. In works like Platoon (1986) and Salvador (1986), this director had presented the United States as a heartless and morally corrupt enterprise, and in JFK (1991) he had notoriously implicated the government itself in the assassination of a sitting President. With the possible exception of Michael Moore, it would have been hard to imagine a moviemaker less likely to place either the perfidy or the heroism of 9/11 in proper perspective.

As for Paul Greengrass, the director of United 93, he came with solid anti-establishment credentials of his own. An English leftist, Greengrass is best known for Bloody Sunday—a grimly factual account of the 1972 incident in which British paratroopers fired into a crowd of protesters in Northern Ireland. He is also the co-author of Spycatcher (1987), a book-length memoir by a British agent that the government sought to suppress, quite reasonably fearing the damage it would wreak on intelligence-gathering. In short, Greengrass seemed as unpromising a choice as Stone.

And yet both films have proved to be other and better than what might have been predicted, while the major documentary of the season, On Native Soil, is significantly worse.

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What took so long for these films to be made? When it wants to, after all, Hollywood can move like lightning. Wake Island is a case in point. A tiny Pacific atoll, it was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, the same day as Pearl Harbor, leaving its small garrison of marines and civilian workers stranded without hope of relief. They fought on, throwing back the first Japanese landing and holding out until December 23, when a second massive invasion overwhelmed them. Even before the island fell, Hollywood had begun production of a movie about it; by late summer 1942, American audiences were watching a blustery William Bendix in Wake Island, the first important film about World War II.

By comparison, United 93 was not released until May of this year, after a span equivalent to the entire American involvement in that earlier conflict. At first glance the lag may seem inexplicable, given the urgent and sustained public interest in 9/11 and the rich dramatic potential in what was an intrinsically visual story. But other factors conspired to make any such film a risky proposition.

One was simple squeamishness. The attacks of 9/11 occurred shortly after a presidential election of extraordinary rancor and divisiveness; despite a brief moment of national unity in the fall of 2001, these emotions soon reasserted themselves in even more virulent form. Unless a script were completely to ignore the context and political implications of the attacks, it would run the risk of antagonizing half its potential market. For much the same reasons, Hollywood had earlier largely steered clear of the Vietnam war, until Apocalypse Now (1979) suggested a theme behind which both hawk and dove could rally: the American soldier’s experience of the war as an incomprehensible madness. But 9/11 offered no such point of general consensus, or at least none around which a film might be built.

If the domestic prospects were intimidating, the international ones were even more so. Since the advent of television, Hollywood has tried one after another strategy either to retain its shrinking domestic audience or to compensate for its loss. As long ago as the 1980′s, it became clear that in order to make money, a film need not recoup its cost during its American theatrical run alone; by means of video sales, cable viewing, and overseas receipts—especially overseas receipts—a box-office flop could be turned into a financial hit. Today a Hollywood blockbuster like The Da Vinci Code can earn over two-thirds of its gross revenues overseas.

Inevitably, however, this has had an impact on content. In recent years, blockbusters have tended to rely less on dialogue and character development, which travel poorly across cultural barriers, and more on visual storytelling—they are, in effect, very loud silent movies. There is little overseas demand for comedies of manners or sports dramas, and certainly not for movies in which patriotic themes predominate.

Still another factor militating against a film about 9/11 was, oddly enough, the fundamentally visual nature of the event itself. Most Americans, watching at home or in the office, experienced that day’s attack as a broadcast, rendering any subsequent dramatization gratuitous. Moreover, the impact of the jetliners and the collapse of the towers were far more frightening to behold than any film could make them, and the leaping victims a far more gruesome sight. Any re-creation of these scenes would inevitably be compared to the original, and found wanting. In this respect, it may be thought remarkable that any major movies about 9/11 have been made at all.

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Among the many discrete events that took place on 9/11, the battle for control of United Airlines flight 93 out of Newark, New Jersey offered by far the greatest cinematic potential. Here, to begin with, was the one moral victory wrested from a day’s welter of defeats, the only occasion on which Americans met their assailants eyeball to eyeball and did battle with them. If, moreover, the very name of the World Trade Center conjures up an image of explosions and fireballs, the uprising in the plane left no clutter of visual material, thus providing scope for a director’s imagination. Finally, the event itself unfolded with the textbook structure of a classic suspense film: the fateful 41-minute delay before the plane took off, the shock as the lurking hijackers suddenly and violently acted, the furtive phone calls bringing news of other hijackings, the desperate planning of the passengers, the final rush to the cockpit door.

Such events need no enhancement; a sympathetic realism more than suffices. Indeed, filmmakers before Greengrass realized this: earlier in 2006 the A&E television network released a surprisingly good film, Flight 93, on just that basis. But what A&E did on a shoestring and within the limited scope of a television production, Greengrass was able to do with a lavish budget. Here his work as a documentary filmmaker stood him in good stead. Throughout the entire movie there is not the slightest hint of artful manipulation for the sake of visual impact, or of staccato editing to create tension. All the drama to come is inherent in the accelerating pace of mundane scenes: the sleepy passengers boarding their early-morning flight, the plane taking off and climbing, the first cabin service by the stewardesses, interspersed with cuts to various regional centers where air-traffic controllers have begun to puzzle over garbled transmissions and straying planes.

Greengrass’s most felicitous idea was to have the air-traffic controllers play themselves. Misgivings had been expressed over this decision, which threw into question what the film was: a piece of dramatic fiction, or a documentary reenactment? But the results are wholly successful. Greengrass’s flight controllers are natural and fluid. Particularly impressive is Ben Sliney, who here reenacts what was his first day as the FAA’s national director of operations. He and the others accomplish what no well-known actor could do: direct attention away from themselves onto the drama unfolding unseen above them. Although the second half of the film confines itself to the physical limits of the plane, these early scenes in the traffic-control centers become the viewer’s psychological vantage point, placing a necessary barrier between the audience and the horror to come. Without them, the movie would have been nothing more than a ghoulish re-creation of mass murder.

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A film like United 93 succeeds or fails by its emotional authenticity—in this case, the felt authenticity of a group of strangers suddenly thrown together by the prospect of death, and forced urgently to act. In general Greengrass has a great talent for orchestrating the emotional state of a crowd, but his touch is not always convincing and in some ways it misses the mark. Thus, he downplays Todd Beamer’s celebrated phrase, “Let’s roll,” a line that in the movie is scarcely audible. But Beamer’s utterance was no mumbled aside—a telephone operator on the ground heard it distinctly. Rather, it was one of those signals, like the call of a quarterback or the tap of a conductor’s baton, that set concerted action into motion. (In this respect, the version in A&E’s Flight 93 is more compelling.)

Some of Greengrass’s omissions are also peculiar. He does not show us, for example, how passenger Thomas Burnett made four separate calls to his wife, quizzing her in detail about the attacks on the World Trade Center towers. This information was crucial in the decision to charge the cockpit. Nor does he show Jeremy Glick joking to his wife that he still had the plastic butter knife from his breakfast, which he could use in a pinch as a weapon—a poignant instance of gallows humor in extremis. Glick also told his wife that the passengers, having been made aware that the hijackers were on a suicide mission, had voted to attack. Yet Greengrass does not give us this vote—an act of spontaneous democracy that was surely the most inspiring (and perhaps the most American) moment of the entire day. The collective effect of these decisions by Greengrass is to pitch the passenger uprising closer to an act of panic than to one of grim determination and purposiveness, which is what all the evidence suggests it was.

Greengrass has also come in for criticism over the way in which he humanizes the perpetrators. One of them, for example, is shown telephoning and conversing with his girlfriend before the flight, while the group’s leader is shown to be a quiet and circumspect type, nervously fighting to control his jitters. In the movie’s most controversial scene, one of the hijacked passengers prays over the phone with an operator just before the camera cuts to the pilot reciting verses from the Qur’an.

But the final half-hour of the film, with the plane flying remorselessly to its destination, is extraordinary. As the inexperienced pilot jerks and rocks the aircraft, some passengers use their in-flight phones to say their good-byes to loved ones while others improvise a battering ram out of a serving cart. Once the assault begins, the camera no longer plays the part of an objective eye, watching from a safe remove, but instead places the viewer right inside the tumultuous charge to the cockpit door and the ensuing struggle to break in. The melee is a visual equivalent to the furious sounds recorded on the black box as the plane—we are now watching from the cockpit window—plummets to the ground.

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Greengrass took it upon himself to tell the entire story of United Airlines flight 93. By contrast, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center compresses an epic sprawl of events into a synecdoche, using a part to illustrate the whole. Stone tells the true story of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, two New York City transit policemen who were summoned to the towers to assist with the evacuation. They were in the underground concourse when the south tower came crashing down, pinning them below shards of concrete and steel; a third officer trapped with them died in the subsequent fall of the north tower. The thirteen hours that ensue are harrowing, as a sudden fireball threatens to burn them alive where they are trapped and the heat eventually sets off the rounds in the dead officer’s revolver. They are not discovered until a volunteer, a former Marine who has donned his uniform to join the search, hears Jimeno banging on a pipe from deep within the debris.

The centerpiece of the film, the interaction between McLoughlin and Jimeno (played respectively by Nicholas Cage and Michael Peña), is particularly affecting. Trapped twenty feet apart, each unable to see the other, they speak across the darkness with repeated mutual exhortations to stay awake. Their topics of conversation lunge erratically, from childhood television shows, to wives and children, to detached speculation about how long it will take before their internal injuries kill them. These scenes could easily have descended into the maudlin or the morbid, but Stone invests them with a kind of mournful dignity, depicting his trapped officers as secular martyrs, their faces covered with soot, powder, and sweat until they are nearly monochrome, like a grisaille painting. As in Christian religious art, these suffering faces fill the screen and in their way are beautiful.

Far less effective are the scenes where Stone drifts to the families and the panic-stricken wives of McLoughlin and Jimeno. Stagy and histrionic, with a palpable lack of chemistry among the actors and actresses involved, these domestic interludes consist mostly of very short snippets of action: a few lines of dialogue, a phone call, a hug. This jagged montage-like style, originally developed for television in response to the tendency of viewers to shift channels during boring bits, is now a hallmark of visual storytelling; but here as elsewhere it is employed at the expense of dramatic tension created through the authentic ebb and flow of thought and emotion.

Stone was clearly attracted by the challenge of making a film within a physically restricted setting. So, long before him, was Alfred Hitchcock when he limited himself to a boat (Lifeboat, 1944) or a studio apartment (Rear Window, 1954). In World Trade Center, Stone has assigned himself the most restricted scale imaginable, what can be seen and felt by two injured and immobile men in a claustrophobic thicket of twisted steel and concrete. But Stone lacks Hitchcock’s tactile genius for giving the viewer an acute physical awareness of the space in which the action unfolds. With the perfunctory Stone, we are never allowed to visualize exactly where McLoughlin and Jimeno lie with respect to one another, or exactly how they are pinned. When Jimeno is finally pried loose, we know that he is undergoing agonizing torment, but we are not shown why. Hitchcock would have ensured a clear understanding of how the beams and slabs were entangled, and how the lifting of one would cause a dangerous settling of another; Stone is satisfied to show the man scream, which arouses our sympathy but not the vicarious identification that first-rate filmmaking can achieve.

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World Trade Center startled many critics, who seem to have been bracing themselves for another JFK. This may help explain the positive reviews it has received in otherwise unlikely quarters, including the Weekly Standard (“a frightening and wrenching film” that “feels right”) and National Review (which proclaimed “God Bless Oliver Stone”). And yet it is finally an unsatisfying work, one that comes close to big events while sedulously declining to look at them. Formally a tale in the buried-alive genre, it draws from that genre’s formulaic stock of situations and dialogue, almost as if Harriet Beecher Stowe had written Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a story about a slave who was trapped in a well. Such a story might or might not touch us, but it would hardly prompt us as Americans to think anew about the world, or about our place in it.

Stone’s choice of heroes is similarly skewed. Of all the firemen and police who swarmed into the towers, he picked two whose chief distinction was to lie supine and immobilized for thirteen hours. Likewise, out of the full palette of virtues that were on display on September 11—among them perseverance, sacrifice, courage—he chose to depict only stoic, passive endurance. The single exception is the Marine who searches doggedly for survivors, but he is portrayed as being wound a bit too tight; one has the sense that Stone is preparing us to meet him again in some yet-to-be-made film about Abu Ghraib.

In the end, it is Stone’s deliberate incuriosity about the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks that makes this film so thin. Others have pointed out the telling irony that Hollywood’s greatest conspiracy-monger should have here averted his gaze from the most horrendously successful conspiracy of our time. As a war movie, World Trade Center neatly inverts the moral lesson of Casablanca; as compared with the troubles of two little people, it seems, the problems of the world don’t amount to a hill of beans.

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Which brings us to On Native Soil, the documentary directed by Linda Ellman and narrated by Kevin Costner and Hillary Swank.

In the Oscar-winning Titanic (1997), the most popular historical film of the past decade, much drama was provided by a rebuffed lover who pursues the star-crossed lead characters with a revolver through the corridors of the doomed ship, firing dementedly. In Hollywood movies, subplots like these are a sure sign that the main story, however theoretically gripping in itself, has somehow been found wanting. Given the state of historical knowledge of modern audiences, this impulse to perform cosmetic surgery on past events is perhaps understandable.

All the more commendable, then, that the impulse was resisted by the makers of United 93 and World Trade Center. In this, they may also have gauged the national mood correctly. There is clearly a strong appetite among Americans to know the unvarnished truth about what happened on September 11, and a need to see feelingly and at close range what was seen on that day through the distancing medium of television. That is surely what also lay behind the unexpectedly large sales of the 9/11 Commission Report released in July 2004: a plain, sober, factual account, and all the more dramatic for that.

One cannot say the same for On Native Soil, which, despite the enormous richness of documentary footage available to its director, succumbs early on to the Titanic impulse. Opening promisingly enough with an image of Osama bin Laden sitting crosslegged as he fields a reporter’s questions and, in his expansive and roundabout way, all but announces what he is about to unleash upon the world, Ellman the documentarian proceeds to do precisely what the fictionalizing Greengrass and Stone avoided: to graft gratuitous drama onto the story itself.

Some of this fake drama is insinuated by Ellman’s editing, which makes full and frenetic use of the jagged style, known in its purest form (as in music videos) as “shock cuts.” In an early scene, we see photographs of the nineteen hijackers. These faces are as eloquent as can be, and history is written across them; but Ellman, evidently finding them too static, whips them across the screen to make them into a bolt of lightning. An even more appalling editorial intervention is Ellman’s sudden and arbitrary conversion of color footage into black and white and then back into color again, as if to say that the chain of events leading to the deaths of 3,000 Americans is somehow too boring to be endured without every bit of graphic pep she can supply.

But the nadir of On Native Soil is its principal narrative line. For Ellman’s real story concerns neither al Qaeda, nor the events leading up to the attack, nor the tactical brilliance with which the hijackers planned their action, nor the death throes of the stricken World Trade Center towers, nor the drama that played itself out on stair landings, in stranded elevators, and in the crowded conference rooms above the wall of fire. Her real story is not about what the 9/11 Commission Report has to tell us concerning these things, but about the formation of the 9/11 commission itself—or rather, as she implies, about the conspiracy that was afoot to delay if not to sabotage the commission’s establishment, a conspiracy led by a shifty conventicle of American politicians who supply her with her film’s villains. Here is one person who has seen too many movies by Oliver Stone.

After this shabby and dishonest beginning, the second half of On Native Soil is a distinct improvement. Documenting the aftermath of the attacks, it gives us the story straight, complete with heartbreaking photographs of the victims of the north tower, squeezed between the rising flames and the inaccessible roof, leaping to their deaths. Had the entire film trusted the documents in this way, using them to illustrate what the 9/11 Commission actually learned, it might have made a truly valuable contribution. But long before this moment it has lost any claim to credibility.

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Would it have been too much to hope that Hollywood might produce a movie focused not just on tragedy and victimhood, as these three films do in their different ways, but on patriotism and heroism? A movie calculated to inspire not just pity and terror but martial fervor and a sense of national purpose? Evidently it would have been too much to hope. To date, no films have been announced that will deal with the dramatic fighting in the mountain caves of northwestern Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama bin Laden; the military campaign that seized Baghdad in record time; the drama of the occupation. The American film industry will not be making a film like Wake Island in the foreseeable future.

Still, if United 93 and World Trade Center will never be mistaken for calls to action, and if neither is perfect as art or as history, each may legitimately come to serve in future decades as a crucial building block of national memory, much as an imperfect painting like John Trumbull’s The Signing of the Declaration of Independence (1786) has come to serve as the image of that great event in American consciousness. Certainly they are the first films in a long time that have sought to depict traumatic events not from a perspective adversarial to national purpose but on the basis of a felt consensus. Although Stone’s movie buries its head, as it were, in the rubble, and although Greengrass’s is hardly without temporizing and equivocal gestures of its own, we are fortunate to have them—and all the more fortunate in light of the deep-seated cultural hostilities on such callow and depressing display in On Native Soil.

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About the Author

Michael J. Lewis, a frequent contributor, teaches at Williams College. He is the author most recently of American Art and Architecture (Thames & Hudson)




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