After the 9/11 attacks, it at first seemed as if the film industry would respond in a major way, telling many stories related to that day.
In fact, exactly one year later, in the fall of 2002, a collaborative effort from 11 international filmmakers quietly arrived in arthouse cinemas in a few American cities. The movie was called, simply, “11. 09. 01 — September 11” and was a mix of short films, all of which addressed either directly or obliquely the events of that day. Some were bluntly painful, such as “Babel” director Alejandro González Iñarritu’s news footage depicting falling bodies from the Twin Towers. Others, such as Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf’s brief visit with elementary-school-aged children discussing the nature of divine punishment (“God hasn’t got airplanes,” says one little girl. “God builds humans.”) were quietly and sadly wise.
But after that small offering, it felt like Hollywood might be taking a hands-off policy. Two 2006 projects attracted reasonably large audiences: “World Trade Center,” with its heartfelt, real-life story of two police officers trapped under the collapsed towers, and “United 93,” a harrowing real-time account of the events that may have taken place aboard the flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field. “United 93” earned two Academy Award nominations for direction and editing. Two other wide releases, the Adam Sandler drama “Reign Over Me” and Robert Pattinson's “Remember Me,” failed to connect with audiences.
Independent filmmaker Brian Sloan can count himself among the handful of writer-directors to explicitly address the events of 9/11. His movie, the 2005 indie “WTC View,” about a New Yorker trying to rent out a room in his Twin Towers-adjacent apartment, is fictional but began with a true story. The New York-based director, who lives a short distance from what is now Ground Zero, placed an ad for a roommate on Sept. 10, 2001. His experiences talking to people who visited the apartment after the attacks, all of whom had stories to tell, eventually became a play and then a film. And the immediate nature of his experience felt like it needed to be told sooner rather than later.
“What inspired me,” said Sloan, “was realizing that I was living in a remarkable period in history and I felt compelled to document that. There was the big story, of course. But there was also this story of how people in the city were living with this immense thing that happened and how they dealt with keeping their lives together afterward.”
Another early entry, Spike Lee’s “25th Hour,” wasn't about the attacks, but featured memorable related images. The drama opens with the image of the twin floodlights that recreated the towers and later features Ground Zero excavation work. Aaron Hillis, curator of Brooklyn’s reRun Gastropub Theater and journalist for The Village Voice, wasn't at first sure the images worked. “The film's evocation seemed timely but unjustifiably shoehorned for an adaptation of a novel published months before the towers fell," Hillis said. "And yet, over the years, those melancholic images have haunted me more than any other piece of post-9/11 cinema.”
Manohla Dargis, co-chief film critic for The New York Times, acknowledges that while there have been a limited number of mainstream Hollywood films that have dealt directly with the subject, it’s actually the aftermath of 9/11 that has been ever-present at the movies.
“You could look at the ‘Harry Potter’ series through the veil of 9/11,” Dargis explained. “It became very difficult not to, with the idea of Lord Voldemort as the evildoer of all evildoers who was going to try to take down [the world]. And the apocalyptic ending reaffirmed that for me.”
The images and memories of that day are still raw. Ten years isn’t a very long time. So when a mainstream multiplex-aimed film decides to take on the big moment and try to make sense of it, the results can wind up weighing too much. Audiences out on Saturday night at the movies are often in the mood to leave the ugly real world behind for vicarious thrills, not in-your-face catharsis. So indirect becomes the new direct.
Not helping are failed movies such as “Remember Me” (which Dargis describes with words like “appalling” and “exploitation”) which uses 9/11 as a surprise action twist, in Sloan’s words, “a simple plot device.” The filmmaker’s not much of a “World Trade Center” fan himself, wondering aloud how it “add[ed] much to anyone’s understanding of that moment.”
War documentaries such as Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and Charles Ferguson’s “No End In Sight” aggressively tackled United States foreign policy after the attacks. But it was a fictional war movie that never once mentioned the reasons for the current U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, “The Hurt Locker,” that won a best picture Oscar.
Dargis said that "Hurt Locker" is “absolutely a 9/11 movie ... it’s indisputable. And I think that’s part of why it won the Oscar that year. It was a way of dealing with it at somewhat of a remove.”
And coming just in time for Christmas is “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Based on the Jonathan Safran Foer book, the film is a domestic drama about a young boy who loses his father in the tower attacks.
That film will bring the tally of movies that directly address the attacks to little more than a handful. But considering the 70-year history of World War II movies, we’re not close to nearing the end of Hollywood’s attempts to grasp That Moment and its ongoing shockwaves.
“We can’t really deal with the central subject so we’re gnawing at the margins,” said Dargis. “This is not done. It’s not going to be done for a long time.”
Dave White is a critic for movies.com.