April 4, 2006
Dreams and Myths: Hollywood and 9/11By Rick Moran
Coming soon to a theater near you — whether you're ready or not — will be the first mass market attempt by Hollywood to insert the tragedy of 9/11 into the American narrative. United 93, a Universal Studios project set to open April 28, tells the story of the ill—fated airliner whose passengers heroically attacked the cockpit and foiled the hijackers' plans to fly the plane into the White House.
The question isn't whether or not the film should have been made, but rather whether or not the people of the United States are ready for Hollywood to do what Hollywood does best: breathe life into myth and employ marketing skills honed over a century of huckstering to fold 9/11 permanently into the fabric of American culture.
The industry is watching very closely how U—93 does at the box office. Set to open later this summer is Paramount's Oliver Stone blockbuster World Trade Center, which, unlike the Universal production, will feature big name actors and a very big budget. At bottom of course, it's all about the money. And a good showing by U—93 will encourage other studios and other producers to jump on the 9/11 project bandwagon while the subject is 'hot.'
By various accounts, there are half a dozen or more 9/11 projects on the boards awaiting final approval by the hard—eyed money men who rule Hollywood. And the question uppermost in their minds is the simple bottom line calculation of how many Americans are truly ready to accept our searing national nightmare of 9/11 played out on the big screen, with all the concomitant emotional and psychological baggage inherent in an event that all but the youngest among us lived through and shared.
Trailers for the movie shown in theaters have elicited some gut—wrenching responses. Newsweek tells of one such incident in New York City where the theater actually pulled the trailer after several complaints:
A similar reaction occurred in Los Angeles when the trailer was shown there:
(Here's a link to the trailer. It will upset you.)
'Too soon' may be a legitimate complaint for many, many people. The trailer is absolutely devastating. For many Americans, 9/11 is still a raw, open wound that refuses to close despite the passage of time. It is these people who will most likely recoil in horror at the images of planes flying into buildings and desperate people taking desperate chances.
But does this mean that U—93 will flop?
Ultimately, the success or failure of U—93 will hinge on the ability of the American people to embrace the tragedy as a part of our history and not shun it because the memory of that day lingers in the shadow world of nightmare.
No medium is more suited to this process of turning history into myth than film.
It is, of course, part of the film—going experience to be frightened, or thrilled, or titillated, or moved to tears. A director manipulates our feelings throughout his creation, conducting our emotions like Lorin Maazel before the New York Philharmonic. Good directors can play us like an instrument so that we never realize that we are held in thrall until we are jarred awake by a climax or plot twist. Alfred Hitchcock was a master at playing his audience, almost lulling them to sleep until he chose to hurl them out of their seats with a few seconds of terror.
The magic of movies is how very much like a dream they are; a third person excursion into a world created by the artistry and imagination of some very talented people augmented by a gee—whiz technology that can make the dream almost too real. For writer/director Paul Greenglass (The Bourne Identity) the challenge is obvious; try to immerse the audience in a film where everyone knows the details of the plot from beginning to end. We know who the protagonists are. We know what happens to the plane. The only question in the mind of the audience is will the story that unfolds match expectations of what it would have been like to actually be there.
Director Ron Howard had a similar problem confronting him when he chose to make Apollo 13. Everyone knew the bare outlines of the story — that the spacecraft got into trouble and only through the hard work of NASA and the grace of God did the astronauts survive. Howard chose to weave a narrative of unusual power by interspersing scenes from the damaged space ship with the scrambling technicians at NASA working against the clock and the human drama of the families of the astronauts in crisis. The result was an emotional blockbuster of a movie that had the audience cheering at the end despite knowing the outcome in advance.
Greenglass is not vouchsafed the luxury of a completely uplifting storyline. However, the raw material he has to work with is dramatic enough. And if the trailer of the movie is any indication, he will be able to use several dramatic devices to advance his story without resorting to cheap theatrics and special effects wizardry.
But there is a question that begs to be asked and answered; is it necessary and proper to make a movie about 9/11 now, less than 6 years after the tragedy?
But 9/11 is different. There are people alive today whose flight from the doomed Towers has so altered their perceptions that the smell of the burning flesh of their comrades still resides in their nostrils and they can still hear the horrible, shattering sounds of people hitting the courtyard in front of the Towers after jumping out of windows far above to escape the flames.
For these and perhaps millions of others whose souls were seared by the horrific images of that day shown live and in color on our TV screens, 9/11 is not an historical event as much as it is a part of their life. In that respect, any film about 9/11 becomes an autobiographical portrait, more documentary than drama. It is almost like opening a personal diary, peeking at the contents, and showing all the secrets of one's personal life to the rest of the world. For many Americans, it will be an intrusion so invasive that they will instinctively turn away. These are the walking wounded from 9/11 and they deserve our sympathy and understanding.
But for the rest of us, it is time to confront the evil and place it into the great narrative story of American history. The way events pass from history into myth often determines how future generations relate in an emotional way to the times. Pearl Harbor, an attack more devastating militarily but without the immediate emotional impact of 9/11, was mythologized almost immediately thanks to the brilliant propaganda work done by director John Ford, whose 1943 production December 7th: The Pearl Harbor Story was so iconic that Hollywood borrowed battle sequences from the film for years.
The film, however, never showed the true nature of the American Navy's disaster that day because the military refused to allow Ford to show several sequences critical of the naval commanders, as well as scenes that offered analysis of what went wrong. It was left for later films like From Here to Eternity and the joint American—Japanese production Tora! Tora! Tora! to tell that excruciating story.
I would hate to see something similar happen to films about 9/11. The story of that day includes not only snippets of unparalleled heroism and base cowardice but also confusion, ineptness, and a fatal refusal to acknowledge the scope of what was taking place in the skies over America that day. Leaving these painful yet vital facts out of the myth will cheapen the sacrifice of those who gave their lives as well as allow people to draw the wrong conclusions about what kind of country America was that day.
A large part of the narrative of 9/11 has to be America asleep at the wheel, careening toward disaster for most of the previous decade, oblivious to the dark clouds of fanaticism and hate that were building on the horizon. The paralysis of all who could have either prevented or minimized the tragedy can only be explained in that context. And Hollywood is particularly well suited to tell that story in all its glory and shame.
Movies about 9/11 will be difficult to watch for all of us. Some may go to the theater fully expecting to view the movie but will be forced to get up and leave in the middle of it because the rush of memory will be so painful as to make it unbearable to watch. For others who stay until the end, let's hope they are rewarded with a cinema experience that is both sobering and uplifting at the same time.
It's going to be a long war. In order to fight it and win, we must be able to put the tragedy of 9/11 in a box and be able to view it as we would a sad memento as from the funeral of a loved one. And one way we Americans can put these memories into that kind of context is by allowing our greatest cultural gift to the rest of the world — Hollywood movies — to close one chapter of our national history book and begin another.
*initially erroneously called "Paul Berkowittz." Thanks to alert readers for the correction.
Rick Moran is a frequent contributor and is proprietor of the blog Right Wing Nuthouse.