Over the past few weeks, the mainstream media has been abuzz with talk of Zero Dark Thirty. Heavily marketed as an Oscar front-runner and as an “insider” account of the quest to kill Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty has been besieged by a group of critics, who have openly challenged the film’s depiction of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques employed by agents of the CIA. Indeed, the outcry has become so persistent, that the acting head of the CIA, himself, has actually taken the unprecedented step of releasing a press statement discussing the film. So what is Zero Dark Thirty? Is it an action-packed thriller offering us a rare glimpse into the inner working of the intelligence community? Or is it reckless filmmaking of a dangerous variety? Read the rest of this entry »
Tag Archives: 9/11
On this day, a day when so many Americans are pausing to recall what they were doing when just a few planes changed the world, I found myself pulling out a song that I used to listen to over and over again in the weeks that followed the tragedy. A tough song to be sure, it’s written from the perspective of someone in the midst of a crisis of faith – someone who is suddenly struggling to see the world in the way that YHWH sees it. And with more than just a hint of Psalmnic angst and rage, “When I Look at the World,” by U2, became a balm to my soul on days that I struggled to understand what God was doing. So tonight, I offer it to you in remembrance of the thousands of people that lost their lives on the day of the attack, and in remembrance of the tens of thousands that have died in the two wars that have followed.
Take, for instance, the cultural hand-wringing that accompanied the announcement of ABC’s Good Christian Bitches. In the months that lead up to Sunday night’s debut, various Christian groups and commentators attempted to take the Disney-owned ABC to task for a show that they believed would unduly desecrate the name of Christ by parodying those that follow Him. Their collective pressure was so great that ABC eventually capitulated, and renamed the show Good Christian Belles, before altering it once again to the even more innocuous GCB. What’s more, as the pressure continued to mount, the show’s writers and Christian star went into a collective state of damage control that may be best exemplified through the following statement issued by the show’s creator:
“As long as I have breath and am writing it, these women never are going to be reflected as simply bitchy or evil or their Christianity used in some derogatory or demeaning way. It’s more a celebration of a bunch of women who are bound together in a faith-based society.”
Now regardless of whether one believes these public statements to be true, the simple fact of the matter is this: GCB had a very mediocre opening because, truth be told, it’s a poor-man’s Desperate Housewives, which itself is no work of Shakespeare. The show has been widely panned by secular critics; and its 2.2 overnight rating leaves it trailing both the outgoing Housewives and even the now-cancelled Brothers and Sisters, which just last season occupied GCB’s timeslot.
All this to say, it would appear that certain groups have poured a fair amount of time and treasure into assailing a show that was never destined for greatness, longevity, or even a significant degree of cultural relevance. Moreover, they poured these efforts into suppressing a show that, upon viewing, was clearly meant to serve as a satire or commentary on certain segments of the Christian community that are virtually begging to parodied. Consider, if you will, what is being mocked. The lead villainess is a surgically-enhanced, church-going, wealthy socialite who spies on her neighbors, gossips, steals and advises people that “cleavage helps your cross hang straight.” Is anyone meant to take this seriously? And even if they are, is this sort of behavior not worthy of being mocked?
Now consider The 700 Club. Founded by Pat Robertson in 1960, The 700 Club is one of the longest running television shows in history, seen daily by over 1 million people in over 200 nations around the world. In other words, in terms of media scope and scale, it is unrivaled in its ability to paint a picture of the Christian life. Now consider what The 700 Club uses this platform to espouse.
Earlier this week, when faced with the question, “Why did God send the tornadoes?” Pat Robertson, the one-time founder of the Christian Coalition and a man who has run for the Presidency of the United States, responded by suggesting that the fault lay not with God, but with the people who built their houses “where tornadoes are apt to happen.” Likewise, when hurricanes swell and dash the shorelines of a nation, it’s the fault of people who “decide they want to build houses on the edge of an ocean.” In either case, if more people had just been willing to pray, God would have happily diverted the tornadoes and hurricanes, sparing, in the case of the Asian Tsunami, hundreds of thousands of lives.
Sadly, when it comes to Robertson’s presentation of the Trinitarian God, statements such as these tend to represent the rule as opposed to the exception. After all, this is the man who, in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, suggested that the tragic loss of 300,000 people was the direct result of their ancestors having made a “pact with the devil.” This is also the man who blamed the pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, and the ACLU for the loss of nearly 3000 people on September 11th. One could keep going, but the point has been made.
So after watching the premier episode of GCB and after watching Robertson’s latest series of public gaffes on The 700 Club, I am left with the question I posed at the outset of this article. What would happen if all of the energy that conservative Christian watchdog groups brought to bear on certain mainstream television programs were to be focused, instead, on The 700 Club? Clearly, the intent of these groups is to protect the good name of Christ and those that attempt to live in His ways. So what would happen, if, instead of going after the easy targets, they turned their attention inward and offered an equally robust critique of Christian media. Think about it. Internal critique is far more compelling than external critique. Internal critique bears witness to the fact that you understand that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. External critique merely bears witness to the fact that you think someone else has a problem. And in terms of the credibility of the witness, the former is far more potent than the later could ever hope to be.
So I guess the better question is: are we really trying to protect the good name of Christ and the reputation of his followers, or are we trying to be cultural power brokers that are merely interested in crafting a cocoon so that we don’t have to worry about what our children see?
 Robert Harling is the creator and head writer of the series. For further information on his attempts to defend the content of the show, please see: http://www.twincities.com/entertainment/ci_20079915
Earlier this week, we started a new series on the Gospel According to Mark; and in the first article, it was argued that this Gospel is best understood in what we call the sitz im leben – or the “life setting” – in which it was written. As you may recall, the “life setting” for Mark is a rather tumultuous time in ancient Judaism – a time in which the devastating might of imperial Rome had been brought to bear upon the tiny, isolated state of Israel. Following the rather ill-advised revolt that was instigated by the Zealot leadership within Israel, more than 60,000 Roman troops had been dispatched into the region, the Temple had been destroyed, the people had been slaughtered or sold into slavery, and as for the capital city of Jerusalem itself, “there was nothing left to make those that came there believe that it had ever been inhabited.”
This is the world into which Mark is writing. War had left Israel in a state of ruin, and the recently crowned, Roman Emperor Vespasian, was sitting securely on his newly established throne. Read the rest of this entry »
There is an old adage that tells us that a recipe can only be as good as the ingredients that are used. If that is true, consider the Oscar-nominated Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It begins with director Stephen Daldry, a man so narratively gifted that all three of his previous films have gone on to earn “Best Picture” nominations. To that, you add the two-time, Academy Award-winning actor, Tom Hanks, in the role of a saintly father who may be the only person on earth who understands his uniquely challenged son. Now mix in Sandra Bullock, just two years removed from her own Oscar-winning performance, as a bereaved mother left to deal with her own grief, even as she struggles to help her son come to grips with his loss. Finally, take all these ingredients and set them in the context of the “jumpers” leaping from the burning towers on September 11th. What should emerge from the oven is a scintillating film that finally gives voice to our collective grief and rage. But, unfortunately, this is not the case. Indeed, there are two critical weaknesses that take the legs right out from underneath this film and ultimately prevent it from becoming anything more than an overly-saccharine sympathy card that leaves nothing but a bad aftertaste in your mouth.
So what are the issues? Well, the first problem has to do with the adaptation of the source material itself. In fairness to Eric Roth, anytime a screenwriter has to distill the content of a novel down to a script that can be filmed in two hours, material is going to be sacrificed. But in this case, many of Jonathan Safran Foer’s most insightful musings on the nature of war and terror have been left on the editing room floor. In the novel, the only reason the grandfather re-emerges into the life of this scarred young boy is because he, too, knows what it means to lose a parent to the ever-turning gears of war. But here, in the film, the fire-bombings of Dresden during World War II are used only as a set up to explain the grandfather’s selectively mute nature. Thus, the larger theme of war and its impact on the lives of the innocent is almost completely absent. And that is a very real problem when you are attempting to say something of value on the subject of 9/11. If you do ultimately decide to see this film, ask yourself this: how would the film have been substantially changed if Oskar’s father did not die in the attacks of 9/11, but in a random car accident that left him with just enough time to place a few phone calls? If you believe, as I do, that nothing would have functionally changed, than you will begin to see the central problem with the film. To reduce the events of September 11th to nothing more than a plot device that allows a character to grow is to fundamentally disrespect the nearly 3000 people that lost their lives on that day in history.
The second major issue with this film has to do with the casting of young Thomas Horn. For some inexplicable reason, director Stephen Daldry made the decision to cast a complete unknown in the role of Oskar Schell. Prior to this film, Horn had never acted either in film or in television; and that is a massive liability for a film in which the young actor is required to play an emotionally shattered boy who is likely suffering from the effects of Asperger’s Syndrome as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Yes, every once in a while, a Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense comes along to take us all by surprise. But that is the exception and not the rule.
So where does Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close sit in the pantheon of 9/11 films? Probably somewhere beneath Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, and just above Adam Sandler’s Reign Over Me. At best, it’s an adequate film that leaves the viewer wondering: is it just too soon to expect a film to really be able to handle the events of that day?
This film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language.
Earlier this week, my wife and I went to see the latest film based upon the events of September 11th, 2001. In the hopes of putting Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close within its proper context, I have decided to offer this brief series on the history of 9/11 and film. Yesterday, we examined the major studio releases that have sought to relive the events of that day. Today, we will continue the series by taking a closer look at the notable documentaries.
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By far the “gold standard” of all the documentaries on this subject, this is the film that almost wasn’t. On the morning of September 11th, French documentarians Gedeon and Jules Naudet were out on the streets of New York, making a film about a young probationary firefighter. But as fate would have it, the brothers were standing in the flight path of the first plane as it flew straight overhead and into the side Tower 1. Thus, these two brothers became eyewitnesses to history as they captured the only known footage of the first strike as well as the only internal footage of the chaos that erupted in the Trade Centers as the firefighters fought their way into the building in a heroic attempt to rescue the survivors.
Ten years after the fact, this film still stands out as a giant among the many imitators. By the sheer virtue of its immediate and unparalleled access to the events of the day, it possesses a power that can still reduce the viewer to a state of shock. From the off camera sounds of the bodies striking the pavement to the steely look of grim determination in the rescuers eyes, the viewer is given a front row seat to hell-on-earth, a seat that might gladly be surrendered if it weren’t so important to remember.
102 Minutes that Changed America (2008).
If 9/11 is the “gold standard” of the documentaries that have sought to understand these events, the History Channel’s 102 Minutes that Changed America comes in a very close second. Wisely eschewing the footage that played ad nausea in the aftermath of the attacks, this documentary is instead assembled by cobbling together footage from the countless amateur videographers that were filming throughout New York.
What gives this documentary its power is the lack of a singular narrative voice. There is no filter for this footage. There is no news anchor gravely interpreting the chaos. There is no buffer from the anguish and pain. Instead, there is only shaky, raw footage painstakingly stitched together in such a way as to tell “our story,” as we all came to grips with the way our lives were going to change through these events.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).
Thus far, we have looked at two documentaries that sought to provide cathartic release by offering the viewer an intimate opportunity to relive the events of that day. Unlike these other two films, however, Fahrenheit 9/11 has no such purpose. Instead, Fahrenheit 9/11 attempts to take a broader, more politicized, view of the events as it offers up an interpretation of the day that links the attacks, the Bush Presidency, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Bin Laden family and the Western dependence upon oil.
Regardless of whether you agree with the politics of the film or not, Fahrenheit 9/11 is significant in that it won the Palme d’Or at the 57th Cannes Film Festival in France; and on the strength of that win, went on to be released in the United States just weeks before the 2004 Presidential election.
9/11: The Falling Man (2006).
The least well known of the documentaries we have discussed, 9/11: The Falling Man is nevertheless an excellent look at one of the nearly 200 “jumpers” who elected to plummet to their demise rather than facing what they presumed would be a slow death via fire and smoke inhalation.
On the day after the attacks, newspapers around the world ran a photograph, which came to be known as: “The Falling Man.” It had been taken by the Associated Press photographer Richard Drew; and unlike any other image from that day, it alone was branded as distasteful and voyeuristic by a mainstream media that never printed it again. But some, such as the documentarians responsible for this film, believed that this picture needed to be confronted, for it alone communicated the true horror experienced by those trapped in a burning building.
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Tomorrow, this series will conclude by taking a look at the Oscar-nominated film, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
 It should be noted that no documentaries related to the “alternative accounts” of 9/11 are included in this list. Such accounts, while widespread on the internet, are too radically different from the accounts accepted as factual by mainstream America, and thus they are a separate entity unto themselves.
 9/11: The Falling Man can be viewed online at the following address: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXnA9FjvLSU&feature=player_embedded
Last night, my wife and I decided to take in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, one of the nine films nominated for the “Best Picture” of 2012. Ordinarily, after viewing a film of this nature, I would simply put up a “One-Minute Review,” and be done with it. But something about this film has elicited responses within me that demand more than a few perfunctory paragraphs. So today, I am going to begin a brief series on the subject of 9/11 and film. And to get things rolling, I am simply going to highlight a few major films that have attempted to address this subject over the past 10 years.
United 93 (2006).
On the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Paul Greengrass, director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, offered us this partly speculative, real-time account of the only hijacked plane that failed to strike its intended target. Much to his credit, Greengrass wisely rejected any attempt to entertain the audience and largely avoided almost all of the exploitative melodrama that one would normally expect from a picture of this nature. In fact, he was so resistant to the notion of fictionalizing or sentimentalizing the events of 9/11 that he even saw fit to cast some of the real flight controllers as themselves in the film. Without question, this is the rawest of the films released to date, as it offers no hope and no explanation.
September 11 (2002).
Released within one year of the tragic events of 9/11, this ambitious, yet rarely-seen, film is actually a compilation of eleven “shorts,” filmed by directors such as: Mira Nair, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Sean Penn. With each segment lasting exactly 11 minutes, 9 seconds and 1 frame, the filmmakers were given broad latitude to explore how the events of the titular day affected people all around the world. As with any film of this nature, some segments are stronger than others. Having said that, this film deserves to be seen, if for no other reason than it was the first of its kind to tackle the issue while the wounds were still raw and bleeding.
World Trade Center (2006).
Released around the same time as United 93, this film could not be more different in tone or effect. Subverting his usual flair for political muckraking, director Oliver Stone instead elected to film a patriotic story of two Port Authority rescue workers who were trapped when the Twin Towers collapsed, and were amongst the last of the survivors to be extracted from “Ground Zero.” While the film’s tagline sees fit to remind us that this is “a true story of courage and survival,” one can’t help but wonder if we are being reminded of this fact because the sense of hope that the film conveys feels so out of place with everything that the viewer knows to be true about the events of that day.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
Reign Over Me (2007).
Six years after the attacks of 9/11, Adam Sandler commendably used his clout to make the first mainstream, Hollywood movie about the emotional fallout that followed the events of that day. Unfortunately, Sandler’s best intentions were seriously undermined by his own desire to stretch himself as a dramatic actor. The resultant film is a melodramatic mess that only sporadically comes to life when the under-rated, but always-excellent Don Cheadle enters the frame to provide some measure of gravitas and genuine humanity. Sadly, by the end, we are left with a vision of “hope” that feels almost as patently false as much of Sandler’s acting career.
Part 2 of this series will explore a few of the most significant documentaries on the subject of 9/11, while part 3 will conclude by placing Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close within the proper context of our culture’s attempts to capture this event on film.