Capturing 9/11 on Film

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.

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.

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4 Responses to Capturing 9/11 on Film

  1. Matt E says:

    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.

    I thought Sandler was great in Punch-Drunk Love. I haven’t seen any of his other dramatic efforts, but from everything I’ve heard, it might not be a bad idea to keep it that way.

    • I’m right there with you, Matt. “Punch Drunk Love” was a decent outing from him, which is part of the reason that I gave “Reign Over Me” a chance. Maybe it was just a matter of the right director at the right time.

  2. clair strohl says:

    Just pondering; what kind of time frames Hollywood waited before producing dramatic or semi fictional films about pearl harbor or WWII or the Korean war, etc… Are we so “immediate gratification” that we cannot let time pass before trying to sell to the audience? Lest we forget what happened that changed our lives 1 or 5 or 20 years ago. It just makes me pause to think how much of Hollywood wants to jump on something to be the first to screen so they can make the money, but not too fast as to take financial fallout for not showing compassion for those affected.

    From the adds, ELIC looks heart wrenching and I am glad they waited, but I wonder if it will cause those who have been in counseling to relive and reverse some of their, “progress,” (if you can call getting over the loss of loved ones progress). I am not even sure of the right words for that last thought…it seems wrong to even think of people getting over something, or moving forward like it is something they can just put in the past. I know we loose loved ones because as humans we don’t live forever, but those events feel more like those friends and family were ripped from us, not just gone from a car accident or cancer (which is horrible, but it happens more frequently and feels more normal).

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