9/11 remembered at the movies

Hollywood has been extremely slow tackling the events of September 11th. Here are five selections covering the good, the average, and the WTF? to watch over the coming week.

With the 10th anniversary falling this weekend, there are very few angles on the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks that have not been extensively covered in newspapers and on TV screens over the past fortnight (and, for that matter, the past decade).

However, cinema, curiously, has been extremely slow, reluctant even, to tackle the events and consequences of that dreadful day. While the subsequent “9/11 wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq have inspired several movies (of variable quality), such as The Hurt Locker, Green Zone and In the Valley of Elah, 9/11 itself has only been directly addressed in a handful of movies over the past decade.

With the exception of the upcoming Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, moviemakers don’t seem in any great hurry to redress the imbalance either.

Indeed, rather than dealing with the events head-on, Hollywood has seemed far more comfortable metaphorising the terrorist attacks as a battle between good and evil in a paranoid, morally-grey world in a slew of dark, zeitgeisty action movies, adventures and thrillers like Signs, The Village, The 25th Hour, The Dark Knight, Cloverfield, and War of the Worlds (Meanwhile, for more downsized, human drama, check out the surprisingly affecting Reign Over Me (2007) starring Adam Sandler as an eccentric New Yorker who lost his family on 9/11).

All that considered here are five of our selections for the movies – the good, the average, and the WTF? – to watch and re-visit over the coming week to mark the anniversary of America’s darkest day.

United 93 (2006):

In what is one of the most astonishing directing feats this writer has ever seen, Paul Greengrass takes viewers on board the doomed United 93 flight that crashed in Pennsylvania en route to a target in Washington DC after the hijackers were overpowered by courageous passengers. Filmed in documentary-style, in more or less real time, Greengrass ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable degree, an extraordinary feat considering that everyone knows how this story ends.

For the final 25 minutes of the film, you, as the viewer, become a passenger on that plane. You get swept up in the rising panic and desperation, as the hostages get in touch with loved ones on the ground, and, through distraught farewells, realise the fate that awaits them if they don’t act. Gripping and utterly devastating, the problem with United 93 is that everyone who watches it once never wants to watch it again. It’s the movie of, and for, the first decade of this century.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004):

Michael Moore touched on 9/11 in his Oscar winning 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, but he goes for it head-on in this incendiary Palme D’Or winner that uses the terrorist atrocity as a springboard to eviscerate the domestic and foreign policies of then-US president George W. Bush. Released close to the bitter and divisive 2004 presidential election, Moore hoped his film would siphon support away from Bush to his rival John Kerry. It didn’t work, alas, but this documentary remains an entertaining, infuriating piece of agitprop filmmaking. For his part, Bush won that year’s Razzie award for Worst Actor for being himself in the movie. See also Oliver Stone’s W (2008), with Josh Brolin as the cowboy president.

World Trade Centre (2006):

Oliver Stone checked his instinct for controversy and conspiracy at the door when he made his heartfelt but strangely unmoving account of two firefighters – played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena – who become trapped in the rubble of the collapsed south tower of the World Trade Centre. Visually, the film succeeds, but ultimately Stone’s understandable reluctance to be anything other than respectful and reverential neuters the overall impact. In lots of ways, World Trade Centre confirmed at the time the worst fears of all those who expressed doubt that 9/11 could be successfully tackled on screen. They had a point, and still do. When the real thing was so movie-like in terms of action, spectacle, and tragedy on every scale, how can cinema ever really compete?

Spiderman (2002):

One of the first major blockbusters to be released after the terror attacks, Spiderman was also one of the first Hollywood productions to require a re-edit to reflect the changed real-life circumstances. A teaser trailer released in the summer of 2001 – showing Spidey foiling a back robbery that ended with a helicopter getting caught in a web dangled between the Twin Towers – was pulled out of sensitivity right after the attacks, and sequences in the movie featuring the towers were also removed.

On top of that, the look, feel, themes and emotional undercurrent of the finished movie seemed to chime perfectly with audiences in the traumatised US, while certain scenes – notably the part where New Yorkers join Spidey in fighting the Green Goblin – reflected the unified spirit of the post 9/11 Big Apple. Even a line of dialogue uttered by one of those citizen fighters – ‘An attack on him is an attack on us all’ – is almost a direct articulation of Article V of the NATO charter which was invoked by the international community immediately after the attacks.

Remember Me (2010):

I must preface this one by saying SPOILER ALERT. Though, come to think of it, this drippy teen-angst romantic drama should probably come with a raft of other advance warnings such as ‘Do Not Operate Heavy Machinery After Viewing’ and ‘Don’t Watch On a Full Stomach’. The first three-quarters of this movie is about pretty, tortured rich kid Robert Pattinson [pause for collective dreamy sigh from Twi-hards everywhere] as he romances student Emilie De Raven and clashes with his own father Pierce Brosnan, who has been emotionally distant ever since Rob’s brother died by suicide. So far so emo, you think.

Then, in the closing moments, we see Rob go to meet his father early one morning for what we believe will be some form of reconciliation. Cut to a scene in a classroom where a teacher writes the date on a blackboard: September 11th, 2001. Cut back to Rob in his dad’s empty office as the camera pans out to reveal that said office is on the top floors of the World Trade Centre. Really, this one needs to be watched (sans spoiler, natch) to fully appreciate just how spectacularly tacky this final twist is. Lesson No 1 in how not to incorporate 9/11 into your movie narrative.

Words – Declan Cashin