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Featuring 9/11

IN WOODY ALLEN’S “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” a successful TV producer played by Alan Alda utters the film’s most-quoted line: “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” What’s true for comedy also holds true for movies.

In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, one of the worst days in U.S. history, its events and victims were considered sacrosanct. Never, it was thought, would they be the subject of Hollywood mythmaking or trivialized for commercial purposes. Movies with violence that was deemed insensitive were delayed, and some projects in the pipeline were dropped. But “never” is an awfully long time. Four years of grieving apparently were enough; now the studios are interested in treatments of 9/11.

As TV specials revisit the attacks and bookstore shelves groan with new releases about them, three 9/11 movies are in the works. Universal Pictures recently announced that it would begin production Oct. 1 on “Flight 93,” a fictionalized chronicle of events aboard the hijacked United Airlines jet that crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Director Oliver Stone also will start production this fall on a film starring Nicolas Cage that focuses on police officers trapped in the World Trade Center. And Columbia Pictures has bought the rights to “102 Minutes,” a book about the interval between the crash of the first jet into the twin towers and the first tower’s collapse.

It is both comforting and disturbing that Hollywood now feels free to delve into the real-life horrors of 9/11. It shows that, at least in the minds of studio chiefs, the open sore has healed. We’re ready to move on, to treat that day as a piece of history rather than an all-too-present source of mourning, fury and fear. Or are we? And if we are, should we feel good about it?

In the months after the attacks, commentators lamented our tendency to blithely ignore the anger and desperation of the outside world until it exploded at our doorstep. Never again, they said, would we be so complacent. Four years later, the cable news channels are endlessly fascinated with an attractive young blond who went missing months ago in Aruba. Of far less interest is the crushing poverty and drought-induced starvation in Africa, the disturbing anti-U.S. rhetoric of South American politicians and the slow bleeding away of our troops in Afghanistan as the threat of a return to extremism there looms.

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Some have accused the studios of being exploitative by planning films on 9/11. But Hollywood brilliantly re-created World War I, as traumatic in its era as 9/11 is to us today, in movies such as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Chariots of Fire.” Yes, those films came many years after the events they fictionalized. But Americans have shorter attention spans nowadays; perhaps we could use a reminder about how and why that disaster happened, and how we felt afterward. And perhaps the studios can provide it.


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