It’s time we looked
FOR the last couple of weeks, the national media have been in a full-scale hand-wringing tizzy over the impending arrival of “United 93,” the first big studio project to deal directly with the events of Sept. 11. From Internet bloggers to the news weeklies, everybody has been posing pretty much the same question about the movie, which chronicles the deadly events involving the hijacked plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field well short of its intended target.
Is it too soon?
The outcry has raised legitimate issues. Newsweek asked of the film: “Will anyone want to see it?” Bloggers have argued about whether anyone should profit from any money the movie makes. The New York Times questioned whether audiences should have been warned before seeing the film’s no-holds-barred trailer, which was pulled from one New York theater after unnerved audience members voiced complaints. The hubbub over the trailer inspired an online discussion among a foursome of editors at Slate, in which Associate Editor Michael Agger opined: “I see this trailer as an unwelcome and somewhat grotesque reminder of the great Onion headline published after 9/11: ‘American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie.’ ”
While I respect the fact that New Yorkers in particular may see this issue in a very different light from the rest of us, I think everyone is looking at this film, made by British writer-director Paul Greengrass, through the wrong end of the telescope. Instead of asking “Is it too soon?” I wish people would say, “What took so long?”
For 4 1/2 years, not a week, perhaps even a day, has gone by without mention of Sept. 11. Our newspapers and magazines have been filled with stories, often illustrated by graphic photographs of the tragedy. Stacks of books have been written. The war on terrorism has been a central focus of our political lives. So many documentaries and TV movies have been made about 9/11 that reviewers now contrast the new offerings the way film critics compare vintage versus latter-day Scorsese films. The playing of never-before-heard tapes detailing the frantic chaos in Flight 93’s cockpit made headlines last week as jurors pondered the fate of Al Qaeda zealot Zacarias Moussaoui.
With emotions obviously still running high, it’s no wonder some people seem so wary of Hollywood weighing in on the subject. But it seems disingenuous for those of us in the media, after having exhaustively explored every possible 9/11-related nook and cranny, to suddenly express outrage or brow-furrowing concern over the specter of Hollywood finally tackling the issue. After all, Greengrass went ahead with the film only after soliciting permission from -- and working closely with -- the family members of the 40 crew members and passengers on the flight.
Having made numerous documentaries and features for TV and film, notably “Bloody Sunday,” a documentary-style drama about a 1972 civil rights march in Northern Ireland in which 13 people were killed, Greengrass has gravitas as a filmmaker who gave everyone, from nervous Universal executives to grieving family members, a comfort level about his approach to the subject. As he said when we spoke the other day, “I don’t come to this as an ingenue.”
Last summer, before he began filming, Greengrass had two town-hall-style meetings with family members, which followed extensive face-to-face interviews with families as well as personnel at air traffic control centers and military officials at the Northeast Air Defense Sector. “We always felt that Paul was the right person to do this film,” says Tim Bevan of Working Title Films, who produced the film with his partner, Eric Fellner, and Lloyd Levin. “There’s been a sense of seriousness and urgency to everything Paul has done.”
Greengrass argues that if we expect movies to have something to say about our world, it is only reasonable for them to weigh in on the big issues of the day, no matter how sensitive. “If we’re going to have the very necessary debate about the problems we face with terrorism and the high degree of militancy in the Muslim diaspora, don’t we have to go back to those first two hours and see if there are any lessons or wisdom we can glean from them?” he says. “9/11 has permeated every other aspect of our media. Are people really saying that movies, one of our principal means of storytelling, should be barred from discussing the subject?”
But that is exactly what people are saying when they say it’s too soon. No less an authority than Tom Shales, the Washington Post’s esteemed TV critic, opened his Jan. 30 review of the A&E; Network’s “Flight 93" with a fusillade of scorn, saying, “Who will profit the most from exploiting the obscene tragedy of Flight 93? In the days and weeks following [9/11] it seemed unthinkable that even the sleaziest producers, Hollywood studios or
TV networks would attempt to exploit any aspect of a nightmare that the nation had witnessed in horror.... But we were naive.”
Having seen both the A&E; film and “United 93,” which opens in L.A. on April 28, I think Shales’ and other critics’ judgment is clouded by a knee-jerk cynicism -- they’ve confused the artists with their industry. Instead of sniping at a sober-minded 9/11 film, these guardians of cultural honor should direct their outrage against real Hollywood sleaze-mongering, like the recent noxious “Date Movie” or any of the gore-drenched horror films that have haunted the multiplexes. “United 93" deserves to be seen with a more open mind. The layers of detail in the film give it an air of no-nonsense authority, underscoring the feeling that while this was an extraordinary event, it was experienced by ordinary people -- people like us.
It must be especially galling for Greengrass to hear lectures from the very news media that repeatedly failed to offer critical reporting about the country’s deadly detour from the war on terrorism to a war in Iraq. If you study the history of Hollywood, its most ignoble moments are not, with rare exceptions, its exploitation of national tragedies so much as its willful failure to confront serious issues, from the Holocaust to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, until the issues were safely tucked away in the history books.
For all its power, “Schindler’s List” came half a century after its real-life events. As Ian Hamilton points out in his book “Writers in Hollywood,” the movie industry, fearful of provoking anti-Semitism, viewed the rise of Hitler with “an almost contemptible timidity. Most studios managed to keep silent about Nazism until just before the outbreak of war in Europe, and even then they trod carefully.”
When the Vietnam War was at its height, mainstream Hollywood was conspicuously silent, except for an occasional jingoistic celebration such as “The Green Berets.” The most searing films about the war, such as “Coming Home,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” all came years after the war ended.
Of course, Hollywood churned out hundreds of war movies during World War II, but they were largely patriotic gestures, not films for the ages. “The movies of World War II were very much better at entertaining and consoling than making sense of what was going on,” explains film historian David Thomson. “Everyone felt the war was a just cause, so you didn’t have to think about it much -- you certainly didn’t ask the awkward questions about what life would be like afterwards.”
If the films of the ‘70s are any indication, the movies that will have the most to say about Sept. 11 won’t be this first wave of documentary-style projects but films that have more psychological distance from the subject and approach it more obliquely.
The films that did the best job of addressing the anxieties inspired by the twin traumas of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War were pictures such as “The Parallax View,” “Three Days of the Condor” and “Shampoo,” films that were not about the events themselves but about the undercurrent of paranoia and tension spawned by the events.
Future historians, curious to understand the public’s growing unease with the war in Iraq, now reflected in the president’s record-low approval numbers, need look no further than the new film “American Dreamz,” which portrays Bush as a bewildered, almost pathetic figure, or “24,” the popular Fox TV series whose president is seen as a heinous opportunist.
All this is to say that with the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 approaching, it is not too soon for movies to offer some unflinching perspective. The cold truth is that great art -- or at least, as in the case of “United 93,” sober, thoughtful art -- is unruly and impatient. Studios and politicians take polls to see if they are too far out in front of the public. Artists lead with their chin, scrambling headlong out onto ledges or exploring into dark corners. They don’t wait for the audience to form a cozy quorum.
“This is a rich time for engaged filmmaking precisely because the stakes today are so high,” says Greengrass. “We know we have to face choices in our society that have enormous consequences. And perhaps this film will provoke a conversation. I don’t want people to come out of the theater shocked or distressed.
“There’s a time when silence is appropriate, but there’s also a time for us to talk and remember and seek wisdom.”
“The Big Picture” appears Tuesday in Calendar. Questions or criticism can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.