Hollywood and 9/11: An Uneasy Relationship

NOTE: A slightly different version of this post first was published at FILMINQUIRY.COM, an independent film magazine.

Recently, I had the chance to tour the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, which, as you can imagine, is quite a somber experience.

Amid the thoughtfully presented exhibits, I started wondering about 9/11 as portrayed in film. Now, when I say “portrayed” I’m not talking tangentially, as when 9/11 is used to jumpstart plot (e.g., Zero Dark ThirtyReign Over MeJack Ryan: Shadow RecruitExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close, to name but a few), but rather films that use the terrible events of that day as their plots.

Only two came to mind: Oliver Stone‘s World Trade Center and Paul Greengrass‘ United 93, both released in 2006.

world_trade_center united_ninety_three

I’ll be discussing those two films in more detail a bit later in this post, but first I’d like to examine the strange phenomenon that is why, in the 15 years since September 11, 2001, arguably the most important art form of the last 100 years has seen fit only to produce two—count ‘em two—movies on the subject.

Hollywood’s Variable Playbook

Hollywood has an interesting and inconstant past when addressing national trauma.

Take, for instance, World War Two, which, despite its incredible carnage–419,000 Americans would be killed by the time it wrapped in August 1945–had the ubiquitous backing of the American public. “The Good War,” as it eventually was christened by author and historian Studs Terkel, was nothing less that a worldwide struggle against fascism, a very clear good versus a very clear evil.

And so, with the PR winds at its back, Hollywood didn’t shy from depicting the conflict even while it raged. Little did they fear an indignant public accusing them of exploiting the sacrifice of our boys. The opposite was true–the public needed these films (and accompanying newsreels) to process the sacrifice our soldiers were making in strangely named foreign lands that, back in the early 1940s, must have seemed as far away as the moon.

Thus, in 1942, the year the U.S. began combat operations against the Axis powers, American movie theaters welcomed over 30 narrative films dealing with the war effort, including Commandos Strike At DawnStand by for Action and Wake Island. In 1943, the total jumped to over 50, with such titles as Destination TokyoGuadalcanal Diary and Corregidor. The next two years kept pace, the war-obsessed public presented with The Fighting SeabeesThirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Story of G.I. Joe, among scores of others.

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And while some of the releases no doubt were nothing more than happy ending propaganda, many didn’t shy from war’s terrible toll. Take, for instance, 1944’s The Fighting Sullivans, which tells the true story of five Iowa brothers posted to the same light cruiser (USS Juneau) and ultimately perish together in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. And then there’s William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), released a little over a year from the cessation of hostilities, telling the story of servicemen struggling to adjust of a post-war life.

The Best Years of Our Lives

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) – source: RKO Radio Pictures

Alas, when America stumbled its way into subsequent, much-less-popular struggles, Hollywood’s output slowed to a trickle as the zeitgeist shifted from patriotic enthusiasm to bitter exhaustion.

Which is why for the duration of the Korean War (1950-53) Hollywood produced but a handful of films, among them Fixed Bayonets! (1951), Retreat, Hell! (1952) and The Glory Brigade (1953). Vietnam, an even less-popular boondoggle, saw only one major film produced while the conflict raged, the jingoistic, critically panned John Wayne vehicle, The Green Berets.

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Hollywood, it would seem, follows, rather than dictates, America’s public opinion.

A Knee-Jerk Reaction?

In the wake of 9/11, Hollywood had a dilemma on its hands: what to do about those Manhattan-set films scheduled for release in the months after the tragedy (but filmed months before) featuring a glimpse of the towers intact.

In this era of political correctness the solution was a no-brainer. Simply cut the offending scene from the film (if it involved an establishing shot of the skyline) or digitally erase the towers from the background (if the scene involved some crucial bit of action in the foreground). In other words, pretend the World Trade Center never existed. ZoolanderSerendipity and Kissing Jessica Stein were but a few who took the proverbial scissors to the finished film. As for Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, the studio took it a step further, not only removing all tower imagery from the final product, but also pulling a teaser trailer featuring a chase (filmed at great expense but not intended for the final release) in which Spiderman captures a helicopter full of bank robbers in a giant web strung between the two towers:

There were exceptions, of course. Cameron Crowe refused to erase the towers from his December 2001 release of Vanilla SkyMartin Scorsese remained similarly firm for 2002’s Gangs of New York. And let’s not forget Mariah Carey’s Glitter, released just 10 days after the attack, not shying from twin-tower imagery. (Actually, let’s just go ahead and forget.)

Generally, though, Hollywood avoided any visual of World Trade Center like the plague—according to Wikipedia, “roughly 45 films were edited or postponed because of the 9/11 attacks.”

A Qualified Reversal

As is so often the case when a country moves further past a national tragedy, the public’s (and, thus, Hollywood’s) comfort level increases in terms of depicting the events.

Which is why, in the years following America’s unpopular involvement in Korea, films such as Pork Chop HillThe Bridges at Toko-RiThe Manchurian Candidate and M*A*S*H were greenlit. And then there’s the dam burst that is Hollywood’s take on the Vietnam War, by far biggest beneficiary of a little distance. Where once there was only John Wayne chewing scenery in The Green Berets, suddenly there were scores of films examining the conflict, many bonafide classics such as Coming HomeThe Deer HunterApocalypse NowPlatoon and Full Metal Jacket.

Hollywood’s taste for examining the events of 9/11, however, has been considerably more measured. While imagery of the towers is no longer verboten—movies now go so far as to digitally recreate the twin towers on the skyline either to make a point (the unending cycle of terrorism in Munich), for verisimilitude (New York of the 1970s in A Most Violent Year), or because they’re integral to the story (Philippe Petit gotta tightrope between something in The Walk).

Digitally recreated WTC in the last shot from “Munich” – source: Universal Pictures

Other than these minor concessions, though? Hollywood still seems to avoid the subject like the plague. That is, with two exceptions, both released in 2006.

World Trade Center

When the public and press first got wind of Oliver Stone circling World Trade Center as director, the concern wasn’t just that it was too soon to delve into the events of 9/11, but that Stone, notorious for holding some dubious conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination, might sprinkle Loose Change-flavored nonsense onto the proceedings.

In the end, those nutty conspiracy fears were unfounded. Stone plays the material straight, telling the true story of Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (played by Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena, respectively), who spent dozens of hours pinned beneath the collapsed towers before their eventual rescue.

World Trade Center

source: Paramount Pictures

Frankly, anyone going into the movie without prior knowledge of Oliver Stone’s involvement might do a double take when his name appears in the credits. Because World Trade Center is workmanlike and unflashy, the epitome of meat-and-potatoes filmmaking, not necessarily Stone’s calling card, especially since JFK, when he began experimenting with various stylized visual and editing flourishes.

And while Stone acquits himself honorably—as does everyone involved in the film—World Trade Center never achieves the sublimity of a classic. Rather, it’s a well-intentioned, feel-good piece of Hollywood entertainment featuring all the usual disaster tropes: menfolk in grave danger intercut with wives back home staying strong “for the children’s sake,” a dramatic rescue, a somber epilogue, end credits, lights up. It’s Apollo 13 under a million tons of concrete and steel, nothing more.

As a director for hire on the project (he didn’t write the script, a first in his long directing career), Stone‘s heart just doesn’t seem to be in it compared to some of his more uniquely personal entertainments. Could it be his creativity was blunted by ceding control over the words? Or is this a case of the subject matter being so delicate that it demanded a kid-glove treatment?

I don’t have the answer. But I do know, as our next film will demonstrate, creativity doesn’t need to be sacrificed at the altar of respect.

United 93

One needs to look no further than Paul Greengrass’ first feature, 2002’s Bloody Sunday, a harrowing examination of the 1972 shootings of Irish activists by British soldiers, for proof that the director has a gift for depicting confusing, chaotic events with the utmost clarity.

After further refining his technique (i.e., handheld widescreen photography, unique editing rhythms) on 2004’s The Bourne SupremacyGreengrass turned his attention to the ill-fated United Airlines’ Flight 93, the only plane hijacked on 9/11 that didn’t reach its destination, crashing instead in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

As opposed to Stone‘s World Trade Center, which was merely serviceable, what came out of Greengrass’ efforts is nothing less than a classic, a stomach-churning vérité look at the travails not only of Flight 93’s doomed passengers, but also the scores of civilians and military who, despite their best efforts, could only watch helplessly from the ground as the events unfold above.

source: Universal Pictures

Yet, despite the tragic outcome, one comes away from the film both heartened and awed that those on the United flight didn’t take their fate like sheep. That, although faced with near-certain death (talk about the ultimate damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation), a group of individuals formed a collective that fought their hearts out to live right up until the very instant of their death.

Through it all, Greengrass achieves a frightening level of verisimilitude, his trademark handheld camerawork (by the fine cinematographer Barry Ackroyd) and spare, often technical, dialogue, perfectly conveying the utter confusion experienced by those both on the ground and in the air as the situation quickly devolves. Another effective touch: the use of non-professional actors in critical roles, such as then-FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney playing himself.

Ben Sliney (second from left) in “United 93” – source: Universal Pictures

And then there’s the final set piece, as the passengers attempt to storm the cabin, a masterclass in staging, filming and editing. Nothing about it is handled in typical Hollywood fashion. Greengrass makes sure to strip the scene of anything resembling cinematic glamore. Die Hard this ain’t. So instead of heroic, macho speeches we get what amounts to a quick agreement to proceed and then off they go (the passengers don’t even know each other’s names). And instead of tough-guy bon mots (“Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!”) we get the crisis’ most famous line (“Let’s roll” ) barely treated as a throwaway. And instead of haymakers being administered to the chins of terrorists, we get a mess of biting and kicking, screaming and wrestling.

United 93

source: Universal Pictures

The scene is sweaty-palmed in its realism–a gritty, violent and chaotic tour de force shot through with dread. No doubt like the real event.

“Too Soon!”

Hollywood’s little experiment with producing movies specific to the events of 9/11 had mixed results.

Due to their relatively small budgets, both films did acceptable business worldwide, World Trade Center making $163MM against a budget of $65MM, United 93 grossing $76MM against a budget of $15MM. So, even with marketing dollars factored in (which can climb to many millions even for small movies), both films made some money for the studios. Additionally, United 93, a critics’ darling, was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Greengrass in the Best Director category.

The American public’s reaction wasn’t quite as rosy.

As noted in a 2006 Time magazine article discussing the making of United 93, when the film’s trailer first dropped at multiplexes there was widespread outrage:

“…there are many Americans for whom the dark place of a movie auditorium is a last refuge from reality. The trailer for United 93 has upset viewers with its gritty evocation of that day, especially a shot of the plane hitting the second tower of the World Trade Center. Audiences who wouldn’t flinch at slasher movies and serial-killer thrillers have shouted back at the previews. A multiplex in Manhattan yanked the trailer after complaints from patrons. Some were angry, some in tears. They felt violated to see, in the guise of entertainment, a pinprick reminder of a tragedy for which Americans still grieve and which they may wish to keep buried, along with the people and the image of national invulnerability lost that day.”

As stated earlier, Hollywood is a follower, not a leader. Thus, no more 9/11 films.

The Illuminating Power of Film

One can only imagine what it must’ve been like to be near or at Ground Zero on that clear September morning in 2001, let alone lose a loved one.

But the fact that, 15 years on, 9/11 continues to be off-limits to filmmakers seems wrongheaded, a weak position in the face of political correctness, a fear of offending. It’s interesting to note that, in a similar post-World War Two timeframe–15 years–the Holocaust, a tragedy the scope of which puts 9/11 on the head of a pin, saw many films tackle this most painful event, films such as The Stranger (1946), The Search (1948), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). And they keep on coming, each one shedding a little light on the darkness that is incomprehensibly evil.

9/11 films? Other than the aforementioned two, nada.

Returning to that Time magazine quote, perhaps if one exclusively gorges on a diet of Marvel and rom-coms and genre crap, then the idea that a movie auditorium is “a last refuge from reality” holds some water. But for those who look to film to, among other things, illuminate the human condition, movies don’t need to be an escape. They can be tough and upsetting and uncomfortable. Because, for better or worse, that’s life.

Heck, David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) was a brutal sit and yet one would be hard pressed to think of a movie that more eloquently (albeit metaphorically) examined how we react to the terminally ill as he or she endures the long, painful and grotesque breakdown of the body. Ditto Schindler’s ListOr Funny Games. Or Breaking the WavesOr a thousand others. It’s OK for art to sting sometimes.

Avoidance is the natural enemy of catharsis. To bury memories of that day, to keep the trauma locked up inside rather than investigate it through art is no way to grieve, let alone heal.

As tough as it was to sit through, United 93 was a good start. But that was 10 years ago. Time for Hollywood to do some more illuminating.

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