|Mayhem for the Masses: The Year of 9/11 Cinema
by Roland Brown
United 93 Directed by Paul Greengrass
World Trade Center Directed by Oliver Stone
After a long, timid approach by filmmakers over the past four years, American cinema has dropped the curtain on its new genre: the 9/11 film. Indeed, despite the reservations of some, there was never any reasonable chance that 9/11 would remain unexamined by commercial cinema. Most people experienced the events of 9/11 through the medium of television, and for them, at least, the immediate points of reference were cinematic. Seeing exploding skyscrapers and military personnel on the streets of Manhattan was for many like watching a movie. This instantly became the clichT of 9/11, as if scenes from Die Hard or Siege had made an unwelcome incursion into New York's reality.
That the assault on the New York skyline would be turned into a new piece of iconic imagery was an intended result: all of the 9/11 targets had symbolic value; this is what forced the broadcast networks to issue the visual cues of Islamic terror's first worldwide media event. In fact, given the global ubiquity of American cinema, it's probable that the planners of the attack aimed to mount an assault suggestive of the imagery found in America's crowd-pleasing disaster genre.
The period of American cinema directly following 9/11 consisted, for a time, of cautious and even mock-pious avoidance of the subject. But now that the genre has broken out, the first urge of mainstream cinema has been to return to the iconic images of the day and to re-create, with dramatic flair, the original events on celluloid.
This isn't necessarily an ignoble urge on the part of filmmakers. If the appetite for 9/11 films proves sustainable, it will probably contribute in some way to an improved understanding of the day's events. The research that goes into such a film, from script department to art department and all points in between is, at any rate, something beyond the capacity of its casual audience. It's reasonable to assume that even if the audience isn't up to an examination of, say, the details of the 9/11 Report, a major Hollywood production attempting a credible re-creation would have to be.
The discussion of 9/11 has often been a fairly benighted one, based on popular perceptions, suffused in vulgar conspiracy theories and cheap politicking. To an extent this will remain part of 9/11's sad story. But regardless of the artistic liberties taken by filmmakers¨including a whole host of "unofficial versions"¨cinema may come to be the medium through which large numbers of people will have gained an adequate familiarity with the subject, and which will inform their discussions in the same way that Vietnam films inform¨to some extent¨the views of those who aren't versed in the details of the actual conflict.
The 9/11 film's first theatrical debut, Paul Greengrass's United 93, is a chilling piece of cinema vTritT, a convincing return to the fossil record of 9/11. Its hand-held shots, vivid cinematography, and real-time approach offer the viewer something which, stylistically, is far more intense and jarring than the slow and information-starved unfolding of sudden catastrophe via Breaking News.
United 93 aims to establish dramatically some of the heroic legendry of flight 93 passengers. Where United 93 has been remarkable is in its efforts to connect the legend with the real events, and to legitimise itself in the eyes of potential critics. While the many details of its storyline are permanently unknowable (the victims of the hijacked flight fall into a narrative void), a great deal was verifiable from phone calls and other records.
United 93 makes a reverent gesture in another way: many of the flight-control sequences feature the actual airport staff re-creating their roles in that event. Many of the actors portraying flight 93 passengers met with the families of their `characters' and received their blessings for the reenactment and the project as a whole. The manipulation and whitewashing usually required for the based-on-a-true-story film has been purged, as much as possible, from United 93. This newfound and earnest concern for verisimilitude in docudrama is fresh indeed¨conditioned, it seems, by the ethical exigencies of reproducing images of a national disaster. It might constitute the model for a whole new form of cinema mourning recent catastrophes.
United 93 represents the mourning phase of the new genre. It emerged from the timorous post-9/11 climate which saw numerous action and military-themed films reschedule their releases and delete content from storylines that was even obliquely suggestive of 9/11. For that reason, United 93 is the genre's time-capsule film, the one that comes as close as we'll ever get to the actual events cinematically. Whatever its developments, dilutions, and digressions, the genre will not be able to return to the immediacy of United 93. It serves as a coda to that uncertain era of post-9/11 cinema and sets the tone for a new one.
Something more daring and perhaps less reverent was expected of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. Stone is one of American cinema's great auteurs, and his audience expects bold statements. Reviewers remarked that Stone's not-so-overtly-political and rather saccharine approach was a creative "turn to the right" by an American director who is known as a disappointed patriot, and who has been on friendly terms with¨and an apologist for¨Fidel Castro.
Perhaps this was a misreading; it overlooks the fact that from some points on the American political spectrum, the very occurrence of 9/11 is damning of the Bush administration because it is held responsible for failing to prevent it. Through some political blinkers, 9/11 merely represents America's departure from Clinton's halcyon '90s and an induction into the terrible and interesting times in which we now live.
Stone doesn't represent this viewpoint precisely, but it may be the base he's playing to. He recently told the Spanish press that George W. Bush has set America back ten years, and that he's ashamed of America's role in Iraq. He also told journalists at the San Sebastian International Film Festival that America has "ruined the world in the name of security."
These remarks aren't especially radical, but they do make one wonder why Stone didn't embark on a film project that depicts the decline he sees in the post-9/11 Bush era, or aspects of the Iraq war that he's ashamed of. It seems that Stone was intent on making a 9/11 film, and was willing to accept the limitations of this nascent genre to the extent that he created a film resistant to political objection.
His decision to do a hero story about two Port Authority policemen, though his film takes a few more factual liberties than United 93, is in keeping with the new genre's cautious bereavement phase. There has been some suggestion that the details of the rescue at the end of the film are factually inexact, but Stone is also meticulous in his way. He takes pleasure in depicting some of the stranger-than-fiction oddities in his sources' accounts, such as Will Jimeno's delirious vision of Jesus offering him a water bottle amid the rubble, and the story of the pious ex-Marine, who left his office job, donned his old fatigues, fibbed his way into the rescue effort, and later reenlisted and was sent to Iraq. In fact, the story of this latter character would have made a much better Oliver Stone film.
World Trade Center, with its soaring musical score and emotive trailer-soundbyte dialogue ("I can still see the light . . . "), is soaked in melodrama, Christianity, and the red, white, and blue; in that way, it ends up glorying in some of the more trite, boring, and frivolous aspects of post-9/11. Like Greengrass, Stone adheres to what is tacitly accepted as the necessary reverence in approaching the subject at all.
The reverence in depictions of 9/11, and the desire to remain as politically neutral as possible, cannot endure indefinitely. Commercial cinema has so far offered the nascent genre two heroic dramas which translate the 9/11 report and other reportage into cinema-speak. While much of their content is accurate, and at times gorgeously executed, both films cater significantly to the audience who thought 9/11 was like a movie and felt that they missed part of it when they saw it on television the first time. They are products of 9/11 and its direct aftermath. But they are only small components of what will become a much larger body that will eventually be subject to diverse political interpretations.
There is already a surrounding cinematic canon that is comprised of films which reflect the atmosphere of 9/11 without depicting it. They began as early as 1998, when the Bruce Willis picture Siege imagined Islamic terrorism in New York, and was faulted for angering Muslims. The next obvious example was Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, which was shot before 9/11 and released in early 2002, and depicts the U.S. military debacle in Somalia, which, it is claimed, emboldened Osama bin Laden. Michael Winterbottom's Road to Guantanamo (2005) addresses part of the immediate 9/11 aftermath. The bizarre black goggles and bright orange jumpsuits of the Guantanamo detainees will surely stand as one of the most memorable visual icons of the current age.
Why cinema, ultimately? The medium has very successfully set itself up as a kind of cultural filter. From the propaganda projects of Eisenstein and Pudovkin to the vast number of Second World War films, cinema creates "official versions" for mass consumption to a greater extent than any official text or academic history.
There is something potentially frivolous about the process of addressing serious subjects in this way; it shows perhaps that much of the target audience can be informed only while being entertained. A large part of an audience is usually more concerned with celebrities, preoccupied with consumerism, and enthralled by exhaustively covered non-stories pushed by a news media responding to the shallow interests of its consumers. Such viewers are often inclined merely to recapitulate the latest political sentiment they picked up on television or in a movie. But the urge to create historical and political cinema around 9/11, even if the bulk of the audience fits this category, is nevertheless justifiable because a tight, effective presentation¨that kind that makes cinema possible in the first place¨would enable such films to serve in the future as a starting point for those who wish to consider some of the more important developments of the new century. ˛