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August 14, 2006

World Trade Center

Reviews of movies about the events of September 11 inevitably invoke questions of representation and timeliness. As A.O. Scott notes, these questions emerged almost immediately after the September 11 attacks, perhaps in part because of the massive scale of the events themselves, which "represented a movie scenario made grotesquely literal." These questions have returned with the release of two major Hollywood films that attempt to represent the immediate experience of 9/11, often in excruciatingly narrow detail. Oliver Stone's World Trade Center (IMDB), which focuses on two Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), who were trapped beneath the rubble of one of the towers until they were discovered by an ex-Marine, Dave Karnes (who eventually re-enlisted). Stone's film follows their saga over the next twenty four hours, more or less, cross-cutting between the two police officers and their families who watch and wait helplessly.

A.O. Scott argues in his review that Stone's film is "uncharacteristically" devoid of politics, focusing almost exclusively on the emotions of the two police officers and their families, but while the public figures most associated with the tragedy--George Bush and Rudy Giuliani--appear only briefly and often in the background, marginalized by the personal experiences of the family members who serve as the focus of the film, the reactions to the attacks seem to follow the narrative conventions most associated with the Bush administration narrative of the war on terror. As J. Hoberman observes, the responses to teh attacks feature a Sheboygan police officer calling the attackers, "bastards," with another declaring that "we're at war," downplaying to some extent the immediate sense of grief and loss in comparison to the more militaristic response. This immediate response is ultimately channeled into a strangely uplifting narrative focusing on the rescue of two of teh twenty people pulled out alive from the rubble in which 2,700 people lost their lives. Hoberman describes this as the "Schindler's List" approach to representing September 11, complete with the welling musical score and the edits that cut between the police officers and their wives, often mixing in flashbacks to tranquil domestic scenes before the attacks.

In this sense, Stone's film stands in relative contrast to Paul Greengrass' clinical, obsessive real-time re-enactment of the hijacking of United Flight 93, with as Stephanie Zacahrek points out, "is the kind of harrowing moviegoing experience that's supposed to make us feel like better people for having suffered through it." Like her, I found United 93 to be one of the most painful, punishing experiences I've ever had in a movie theater, making Stone's film perhaps the more compassionate of the two films, even if both conform, as Hoberman notes, "the narrative put forth by George W. Bush."

But the point I want to address regarding World Trade Center and United 93 has less to dow ith reviewing the two films, and that is whether we actually need or want films that so obsessively reproduce the immediate experience of Septmebr 11. Zacharek addresses this question in her review, asking why we "need or want" these films, and after seeing both World Trade Center and United 93, I'm not sure that anyone has adequately answered this question. I've seen both films simply because, as someone who writes about and studies popular culture for a living, I felt obligated to weigh in on the films that attempt to tackle the important issues of the times, but the obsessive focus on 9/11 itself, as something outside of time, simply seems to concretize the power of that particular day over America's definition of itself and its understanding of the events of the last five years. With the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks quickly approaching and the recent folied plot to blow up as many as ten trans-Atlantic flights, reception of Stone's film has been framed by the renewed attention to terrorism. (and the degree to which this discussion centers around how the terror plot might affect the film's box office seems just a bit trivial).

In this sense, I remain convinced that the best films "about" September 11 are those films such as Spike Lee's 25th Hour and John Touhey's September 12th that deal with its aftermath, with our attempts to live in the world after the attacks instead of obsessively revisiting and reliving the events of that horrible day.

Update: I wish I'd read Anthony Kaufamn's AlterNet review before writing my own. I think he's pretty much right about the entire film, particularly when it comes to the vapid depictions of New York City, complete with happy homeless people and Pena's Latino police offcier singing along to Brooks and Dunn's "Only in America" while driving in to work. I do think that Kaufman is right that Hollywood representations of history reduce it, particulalry when it comes to such complex events as 9/11, but I wonder if these films consistently fail to connect with audeiences for precisely the reason that 9/11 resists such easy simplifications and reductions.

Posted by chuck at August 14, 2006 11:29 AM

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I was a bit confused by the short scope of the film too, but I read and saw (via youtube) a few Stone interviews and they were enlightening. Stone mentions that World Trade Center could be compared to Platoon, so there could be a follow up along the lines of Born on the Fourth of July. (Of course, WTC isn't really comparable to Platoon, but I think a second Stone movie would be something to look forward to.)

Also, it's hard to know precisely which details in the movie weren't based on the accounts of the police officers, but I assume most of them were, so the happy homeless people and Pena's Latino police officer singing along to Brooks and Dunn's "Only in America" while driving to work are probably factual.

Posted by: CM at August 20, 2006 12:09 AM

CM, that's a good point: this clearly doesn't have to be the final word on 9/11, much less Stone's final word. I'd argue that even if the "happy homeless" were factual, they self-consciously evoke an image of New York that is inconsistent with the images most New Yorkers have of their city. Stone could have focused on other aspects of the ploice officers' experiences before the attacks.

Posted by: Chuck at August 20, 2006 11:42 AM

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