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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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September 11 and the Movies

I remember on September 11, 2001, or perhaps in the first couple days after, speculation that the terrorist attacks of the day would inevitably become the subject of movies. The reaction of many was outrage at the thought. Some doubted it would ever happen, while others seethed as they imagined B-movies and TV movies exploiting the events for cheap action thrillers. If I recall my own thoughts correctly, I acknowledged the possibility of a movie covering the subject in a way that respected the events and honored the victims -- the precedent had been set, after all, by the great films of World War II and the Holocaust -- and yet I found myself unable to imagine it and unsettled when I tried to.

Five years later, we got United 93 by Paul Greengrass and World Trade Center by Oliver Stone. Both are great films that respect the events and honor the victims.

But the movies have been dealing with 9/11 all along.

It was just one year after the tragedy when we got an anthology film called 11'09''01 - September 11, wherein 11 different international directors each made an 11 minute short film about the attacks and, more generally, intolerance throughout the world. It was overlooked by commercial audiences, mostly because it was a foreign, independent film with limited distribution. A fair argument might also be made that it was too soon to deal with the events so directly. A compelling argument might be made that the world was not ready to hear what it had to say. While most of the segments were sympathetic, some did not portray the United States in such a positive light. I have not seen the film and cannot pass judgment, but the closing words of Roger Ebert's review have always stuck in my head: "Would it have killed one of these 11 directors to make a clear-cut attack on the terrorists themselves? 9/11 was a savage and heartless crime, and after the symbolism and the history and the imagery and the analysis, that is a point that must be made."

11'09"01, a no-budget independent arthouse project, isn't really what I want to talk about, though. What interests me is in how mainstream American cinema has dealt with the tragedy.

One of things that fascinate me about the movies is how they not only document history but document the evolution of our perspective as a culture. The way the movies treat the Great Depression is a wonderful example: the movies made during the Depression were almost exclusively comedies and dramas about high society. Lavish costumes and sets were the order of the day. Often you'd have a main character who was poor, but he was never really beaten down by it, and he'd catch his big break before the end. It wasn't until the Depression was over that you started to see films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) that directly addressed the hardships of the time.

The movies weren't so shy about World War II, on the other hand. Back-to-back Oscar-winning Best Pictures Mrs. Miniver and Casablanca both dealt with the war before its outcome was known. If you were to watch a sampling of World War II films chronologically, from then to the present, the way our views of those events have changed over time would be readily apparent. No doubt 9/11 will continue to be handled by movies in different ways. In 50 years, the attacks will get both its Saving Private Ryan (1997) -- which will teach our children's children what a debt we owe to the rescue personnel at the World Trade Center and the passengers of United flight 93 -- and its Pearl Harbor (2001), which will exploit the tragedy as the setting for a dopey romance.

For now, though, we're only at the very beginning of that process, and it started well before this past summer. Historically, it takes Hollywood about three years to react to global events. Artists take time to decide how they feel about them and how to express those feelings, and movies take time to make. Hollywood reacted pretty quick to 9/11. Overnight, terrorists vanished as the villains of escapist action movies. A few already in the can, like Collateral Damage with Arnold Schwarzenegger, were postponed.

More interestingly, as the columnist David Poland pointed out, movies suddenly started to deal with death and grief in a way they had not done before quite so pervasively. Big Fish (2003) dealt with a son mending his relationship with his estranged father on his death bed. Mystic River (2003) is about the inability of three friends to deal with a tragedy. 21 Grams, In America, Cold Mountain, and House of Sand and Fog, all 2003 awards-season films, attempt to deal with death and grief in some way. Any of these movies might have been made at another time. Death is a universal part of life, and facing the reality of death is one of the most difficult things we do with our lives. But the preponderance of this theme in films made in the aftermath of 9/11 speaks to a cultural tide.

Last summer brought us the first two big budget movies that dealt with 9/11 directly. Debate raged in the media over whether it was "too soon" for movies to deal with this subject matter. I don't think I ever understood what that meant. I remember well my adverse reaction to the thought of movies exploiting the attacks, but a movie that honors the events honors the events, and a movie that desecrates the events desecrates the events. The only difference timing makes is whether the latter gets away with it or not. So the question for me was never about whether it was "too soon" but whether the films were made with the proper respect.

Faithful listeners of the podcast may remember that I saw United 93 after some reluctance, but then was immensely glad to have done so. I was expecting something gutwrenching in a way that just beat me up emotionally and left me drained. What I got was gutwrenching, but in a cathartic kind of way, a way that reinvigorated within me feelings I am glad to have.

I've also now seen World Trade Center, a film I had substantially lesser hopes for, partly because I am no fan of its director, Oliver Stone, and partly because the trailer packed in every disaster movie cliche imaginable. It looked, in short, like weepy, manipulative propaganda in the form of an escapist thriller -- everything I did not want a movie about 9/11 to be. But I was wrong. Amazingly, Oliver Stone has made a film that is not political at all, moreover one that does not leave me questioning his honesty. It is not as great as United 93, particularly in setting up the events of the day in the opening scenes, but it tells a powerfully moving story about two of the port authority policemen that were trapped under the rubble of the World Trade Center. The disaster movie cliches in the trailer are not nearly so conspicuous in the natural flow of the film itself, when we are invested in the stories of these people. It is not as accomplished as United 93, which will probably make my eventual list of the Top 10 movies of the 2000s. But it is a great film that broadens our perspective and understanding of the 9/11 attacks and our compassion for the victims.

I certainly don't think it was "too soon" for United 93 and World Trade Center to tell these important stories. It may be too soon for you to see them. We all deal with grief and tragedies in intensely personal ways. Some of us take longer than others to work things through. Some of us deal by confronting the realities directly, and others deal by escaping them. But at some point, whether it's tomorrow or in ten years, you owe it to yourself to see at least United 93. I recommend both, though, as they compliment each other particularly well. They each deal with a different 9/11 attack and approach the material from different perspectives that, taken together, provide a nicely broad understanding.

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