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9/11 and World Trade Center

Thomas Wartenberg sees two films about 9-11 and muses that sometimes more than courage is called for.

The events of 9/11 have had a lasting impact upon the consciousness of many Americans and others. Before that, Americans seemed convinced that terrorism would never invade their shores, even though there was much counter-evidence to that belief well before 9/11 – including a prior attack on the World Trade Center itself. Still, the spectacular manner in which the hijackers splashed onto television screens the world over cannot be denied.

So it’s not surprising that Hollywood should be trying to find ways of addressing the anxieties that many Americans feel as a result of 9/11. Hollywood has produced two films this year about the events of that day. Each of these films deals with a different aspect of what transpired, and they do so with mixed results. What they have in common is the portrayal of acts of individual and group courage as the true lesson of 9/11.

By far the better film is Paul Greengrass’ United 93, which purports to tell us the true story of what happened to the only plane commandeered by terrorists on the morning of September 11 2001 that did not crash into its target. As we all know, the heroic actions of its passengers brought it down on a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, probably sparing the White House from being hit.

Given the fact that we all know what happened, the makers of United 93 faced an interesting challenge: how to create suspense in a story whose ending everyone in the theater already knows. This film’s interesting answer to this problem is to slow the story down so that the tension we feel is a result of our awareness of the inexorable press of time as history slowly moves to its inevitable conclusion. The film achieves this by using ‘real time’ – that is, by showing the events at the actual pace at which they took place. Movies rarely do this (a notable exception being Mike Figgis’ Time Code which I reviewed in Issue 30).

As a result of this technique, United 93 has the feel of a Greek tragedy, where the outcome of the story was not the focus of interest since it was well-known to the audience. Rather the manner of its telling, which generally involved an awareness of the necessity of its outcome, became the primary interest. As we move to the inescapable outcome of the hijacking of United 93, we similarly sense the inevitability of the events taking place. The difference between this film and a Greek tragedy, however, is the source of the perception of this necessity. In a Greek tragedy the necessity of the outcome is routed in deep facts about the characters and their relationships. With United 93, it is only the fact that we know exactly what is going to happen that gives us the feeling of necessity, of there being no way to reverse the course of events which culminates in the crash of the plane.

Still, the portrayal of the bravery of the passengers as they slowly hatch a plot to wrest control of the plane from the hijackers is very effective. What we witness is ordinary people coming together in an emergency and acting to prevent a more devastating tragedy, even though they know that doing so will seal their fate. When faced with imminent death, people often clutch at straws to avoid the clear conclusion. But instead, accepting the inevitability of their own demise, the film shows that some of the passengers on that ill-fated flight acted with amazing courage in attempting to save others.

United 93 also gives us a portrait of the terrorists. Rather than religious fanatics, they are presented as young, unsure men who are scared about the actions they intend to take. This is an interesting, humanizing move I found compelling. Whether it is true or not is another question; but at least it paints a picture of the terrorists which does not show them to be crazed fundamentalists, but rather people with whom we can feel a connection, despite the horrific nature of their deeds.

Aside from its portrayal of the plane’s descent and crash, the most frightening feature of the film is its depiction of government and military officials as basically clueless about how to deal with the attacks. The lack of coordination between the different government systems is truly astounding, as is the inability of the military to take decisive action in the crisis.

Thus United 93 goes some way towards helping us understand different aspects of what happened on 9/11. Not so Hollywood’s second major film about the events of that day.

World Trade Center is the work of Oliver Stone, the Hollywood maverick who brought us such films as Platoon (1986), JFK (1991), and Nixon (1995). Stone has always presented himself as a patriot who tells us the truths we have difficulty accepting about the seamy side of America. World Trade Center is therefore surprising for its more-or-less straightforward embrace of the political agenda pushed by the Bush Administration. Unlike United 93, this film has little to recommend it.

World Trade Center tells the story of two policemen trapped under the rubble of the Trade Center buildings. Both are members of a squad sent downtown to deal with the chaos resulting from the initial plane crashes into the Twin Towers. But the choice to focus on the fate of these two individuals is odd – as if this could tell us something essential about 9/11.

The film begins with an interesting montage of New York city beginning to wake up on that dreadful day. Here, the tension between people awakening to what they have every expectation will be an ordinary day, and our awareness of what lies in store for them, creates an atmosphere laced with irony and tension. It is, I think, the film’s best sequence, for it allows us to see a range of individuals all making their way to a common fate which they are completely unaware awaits them.

Unfortunately, when the film turns into a drama about the rescue of John McLoughlin (Nicolas Page) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), it turns into a pretty standard rescue movie. Here we find heroic rescuers fighting the odds and the indolence of others as they do the seemingly impossible. Except for its veneer of hyperpatriotism, this part of the film is interchangeable with many others we have seen, for example, about the rescue of trapped coalminers.

Although I was annoyed about this switch of topics and direction, this was nothing compared to my outrage at one scene in particular. McLoughlin’s wife is in a hospital along with many other victims’ family members, all of whom are awaiting news of their loved ones. Standing with a cup of coffee in her hand, she strikes up a conversation with an African-American woman who tells her that she’s anticipating news of her son, a waiter in the restaurant atop one of the Twin Towers (this to let us know her son has died). As she tells Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) that her greatest regret is that she yelled at her son as he left for work that morning, she breaks down, and the two hug. I couldn’t help but feel the film was heavy-handedly trying to tell us that all the differences between us Americans were bridged by our common suffering at the hands of the terrorists. This is a message I don’t accept, though it is evidently true that every American could be a target for the terrorists.

The film ends with the crazy rescuer hinting that he will be off to Afghanistan or Iraq. Thus the cycle is completed as the film offers support for the Bush Administration’s bogus claims linking the disastrous invasion of Iraq with the so-called War on Terror. The political climate now, at the time of the film’s release, is certainly different than at least at the start of its production, for the Iraq War is now generally recognized as probably the greatest foreign policy disaster the United States has engaged in since Vietnam. Thus Stone’s attempt to show that individual heroism is called for both in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Twin Towers and in the extended response to terrorism which resulted in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq now seems oddly out of phase. This is not to denigrate the amazing courage of the individuals involved in all these events, only to say that this is hardly an adequate intellectual or artistic response to the complex phenomenon of global terrorism.

I’m afraid then, that much soul searching remains to be done in order to provide an adequate emotional and intellectual response to the events of 9/11 on film. While that day provided the context for many acts of individual and group courage, there are deeper lessons to be learned than that people faced with extreme situations can respond with a courage that many of them do not know they have.

©Thomas Wartenberg 2006

Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview), and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches Philosophy and Film Studies at Mount Hollyoke College in Massachusetts.

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