A man covered in gray dust runs for his life through the streets of Newark. Clothes -- without bodies -- float down from the sky like phantom spirits. Masses of people trudge along the highway. A plane crashes into a once-tranquil suburb, smashing houses in its path. A little girl asks her father, “Is it the terrorists?”
No, it’s scenes from Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” the first major-scale Hollywood production bringing Sept. 11 imagery to the multiplex. Hollywood used to take years to process, absorb and re-imagine our history -- it took more than a decade from the Vietnam War’s start for the Oscar-winning “The Deer Hunter” to arrive. Although Hollywood initially shunned movies with even vague overtones of the attacks, the pop culture machine moves fast enough nowadays that a growing number of filmmakers are gravitating to the stories of Sept. 11 and its aftermath.
The stakes are particularly high. Hollywood is anxious to see if the Spielberg-Tom Cruise “War of the Worlds” combination can pull the industry out of its abysmal 18-week box-office slump (and if Cruise’s increasingly odd public antics have any impact on his commercial prowess).
Indeed, expectations for “War of the Worlds” are running so high that anything less than a $100-million gross for its first six days would be considered disappointing. But even rival studios say “War of the Worlds” should far exceed that benchmark; one estimates the movie could sell as much as $145 million in tickets in the six days. To put that in context, “Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith” grossed $158 million in its first four days of release last month.
If Spielberg and Cruise can’t pull the industry out the worst box-office spell since 1985, then it will be the industry leaders, not the audience, who will be really scared. Should “War of the Worlds” not perform, it will be seen as a further sign that either Hollywood is hopelessly out of touch with the American people, or that some fundamental shift is happening within the audience, which has begun to prefer watching DVDs and playing video games to going to movie theaters.
Despite its fantastical premise, “War of the Worlds” is a hyper-realistic, frightening movie aimed at an uneasy nation. What remains unanswered until the holiday weekend is over is whether this cinematic scare will prove cathartic or just too disturbing for summer audiences. A number of filmmakers are confident the audience is ready for the nearly dozen or so other films whose story lines are shaped by a post-attack mind-sets.
“A lot of films, whether they intend to or not, are a reflection of our own paranoia and fear from what happened in ,” Spielberg said in an interview earlier this year with The Times. Noting that he shot the film in a manner similar to the gritty “Saving Private Ryan,” Spielberg added, “9/11 set the tone and made it worth my time and the audience’s time to see this story treated in this way.”
As in Spielberg’s movie, the terror references in some of these upcoming films are indirect. Yet several others, mostly still in development stage, confront 9/11 head on, including planned adaptations of the book “102 Minutes” and movies about rescue workers and firehouse chaplain Mychal Judge.
The nearly completed projects range from “Syriana,” a film chronicling the netherworld of the international oil trade, to “Stealth,” a drama about unmanned fighter planes and terrorist cells. A number of new independent films -- “Yes,” “The Great New Wonderful” and the documentary “Protocols of Zion” -- were all begun in the weeks and hours immediately following the attacks as personal, creative responses to the tragedy.
“You don’t want to turn away from the greatest conflict of our generation,” said Sally Potter, who began writing “Yes” the morning of Sept. 12, 2001. “You want to deal with it and make a contribution.”
For Potter and several other filmmakers, that contribution rests on using the attacks more as an emotional framing device than as a direct visual or narrative reference. In “Yes,” an Irish American woman falls in and out of love with a Lebanese man. The intersecting stories in “The Great New Wonderful” conclude on Sept. 11, 2002.
“One of our concerns was to not make a story that exploits those events, and the emotional resonance around those events,” said Michael Nozik, executive producer of “The Great New Wonderful” (the title refers to one character’s bakery). “It’s not about 9/11 in a direct way. It’s about emotional recovery and grief.”
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Hollywood was squeamish about making any movies that touched on the themes of 9/11, even tangentially. Any number of movies about terrorists were either scrapped or rewritten. Both “The Interpreter” and “Flight Plan,” the latter of which opens Sept. 23, were put on hold. The debut of the comedy “Big Trouble” (whose plot included a bomb on an airplane) was delayed, as was the comedy “Sidewalks of New York.”
A few art house movies addressed the attacks, but failed to attract audiences; both “The Guys,” a drama about fallen firefighters and “11'09"01 -- September 11,” a compendium of short films, flopped.
As time went by, though, a group of filmmakers realized that 9/11 played such a dramatic role in the nation’s psyche that ignoring it would be foolish.
Last year, Michael Moore’s documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11" was a breakout hit. The studios started to change course, embracing the very movies they had avoided just a few months earlier.
Television already is percolating with shows that explore 9/11, such as the Dennis Leary firehouse drama “Rescue Me,” and numerous novels touching on the subject have begun to emerge. Hollywood producer Scott Rudin has optioned Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” about a young boy who lost his father in the attacks. Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth is adapting it.
“In the wake of 9/11, I thought something so interesting was happening,” said Stephen Gaghan, the screenwriter of “Traffic” and the writer-director of “Syriana.” Rather than fearing a single outlaw as easily identifiable as Saddam Hussein, the country was now dreading a shadowy, shifting villain who moved from country to country, Gaghan said.
“It’s an incredible shift. And it’s incredibly scary. The discussion [about global politics and oil] has moved front and center. In the 1990s, foreign policy was an abstract. It was all about the Internet, and the stock market. Now your personal security is involved. I was determined to make a movie about what was going on,” Gaghan said of his film, scheduled for release on Sept. 16.
Rob Cohen, the director of July 29’s “Stealth,” says his film wouldn’t even exist had it not been for the Sept. 11 attacks. “There is a fear now that there is an invisible enemy that is all over the place,” the director said. “And we have to come up with a technological answer to this new reality.”
In this popcorn action film, that answer turns out to be an unmanned fighter with a mind of its own. “The film tries to explore ideas about war, and how it will not make the world better, rather than, ‘Isn’t America great?’ ” Cohen said. The movies posters even feature the ominous tag line “Fear the Sky.”
Some filmmaker responses to the attacks are highly individual. Director Marc Levin said his movie “Protocols of Zion,” opening later this year, was inspired when an Egyptian cabby in Manhattan told Levin the attacks were coordinated by Jews as part of their plot for global domination, a scheme laid out in the anti-Semitic tract “The Protocols of the (Learned) Elders of Zion.” So Levin went out with a camera to interview people on the street about their prejudices and conspiracy theories.
“I felt there had to be another way to discuss religious fanaticism, bigotry and hate,” Levin said. Many of his friends discouraged his cinematic inquiry, fearing it would help publicize a loathsome book and reopen fresh wounds. But now that four years have passed, Levin feels the time might be right.
“For a lot of people, [the attacks] were a long time ago,” Levin said. “It’s moved more forward than I would have thought -- it’s the hyper-speed of our lives.”
Yet for many, the attacks remain in the subconscious, if not discussed, then always remembered. Suspicion and mistrust have become a part of modern American life, and now, it seems, part of Hollywood’s."Paranoia is what happens when you’re afraid that something is coming at you right around the corner, but it never materializes,” Spielberg said. “Our story starts with paranoia, which is very quickly realized.”
For the past several months, Hollywood has been unable to connect with moviegoers. Will “War” be the answer?