Saturday, September 11, 2021

Where Are We Going; Where Have We Been?
9/11 Cinema at 20

“It’s like something out of a movie.” I don’t remember the first time I heard someone say that on September 11, 2001, as we stared in horrified curiosity at the news footage, compelled to see what would happen next, afraid and confused and reaching for the only comparison point that made sense. It was one knee-jerk way to try to understand something that barely felt real at first. Maybe I even said it myself once or twice. Skyscrapers burning, the towering infernos collapsing. Smoke billowing, debris floating, people running. The images were indelible; for anyone alive and able to witness the unfolding crisis of that day, the sensation they cause are unshakeable. We stared at the images intently, repeatedly, the inescapable news footage on a loop for days and weeks. We looked until the smoking towers looked like black caskets against the sky, until the rubble became a landscape, until the smoke became sorrow itself. Even so, we turned to the movies, even in some small part, that day to try to contextualize the novelty and all-encompassing terror in the images we were seeing. We continued to turn to them in the decades after, as the ripple effects of that terrible shock reverberated in images and stories we told ourselves afterwards. Beyond the propaganda that would follow, beyond the news that would endlessly roll, beyond the photo spreads and press conferences that tried to contextualize, cinema reacted, too. All along, the movies have helped and hurt our understanding. 

On that sunny September day twenty years ago, we had not long before emerged from the 1990s, whose blockbuster cinema reliably brought us these visions of disaster. They gave us a resurgence of such calamities, ever escalating. Daylight flooded the New Jersey Tunnel. Speed hijacked a bus. Titanic sunk a famous boat. (That one, of course, had a dose of reality. It was also easily the best, and stuck in the conversation such that more than one person wondered how 9/11 could be turned into a romance. Remember Me?) Volcano burbled lava down LA streets. Independence Day blew up the White House, and other major landmarks. Deep Impact took out the whole coast. Armageddon took out several places—most hauntingly, in retrospect, the chunk a meteor took out of the side of the World Trade Center. When they came down for real, it was our only comparison point. What often felt like safe fantasy in those movies, bemusement at the sight of destruction, became suddenly, horribly, actual events, news footage to witness.

For those of us otherwise unaffected directly in smaller towns across the country—those of us with no relatives in New York, no flights to be diverted—it was still an event on a screen. And yet the reality sunk in. The citizens of my midwestern hometown talked in shocked tones, worried some building near us might be next. Such was the effect of these new images supplanting and overriding the Hollywood explosions in the mind. Surely, they thought, it doesn’t end there. A sense of surety and safety had been shaken, with many feeling suddenly vulnerable to the consequences of history, as writer Mike Davis put it. How interesting, then, that the ways in which these images of destruction were reclaimed by Hollywood were mostly for fantasies of power and control. As we marched off to ill-considered wars doomed to some degree of failure, loss, and calamity, superheroes stories started their latest flourishing, at least in part because the narratives of apocalypse narrowly averted by strongmen played upon the nation’s desire for easy resolution, a reclamation of all-powerful American supremacy. Seen from that angle, what are the Avengers, after all, but the elite global police force some dreamed the United States could be in those early interventionist pre-emptive strike years?

The so-called incoherent texts of Hollywood filmmaking worked overtime in the Bush era. Movies whose politics are hard to parse on purpose get bigger box office, or so the suits often say. Sure, some mainstream movies dripped with a productive poison pen of politics—Demme’s 2004 Manchurian Candidate remake was an astute dagger to the heart of the military industrial complex’s many tentacles; Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales extrapolated a dystopian mania from its sprawling future shock sci-fi insanity that feels quintessentially mid-aughts in tone and intentions; the Coens’ cynical Burn After Reading lampoons flailing intelligence agencies. They were the exceptions, though. Some, like the South Park guys’ broad puppet comedy Team America: World Police had a few good jabs buried under the slobbering prejudices of the time. Others, like the Bourne films and their ilk, took the jangled geopolitical destabilization—and deep suspicion of surveillance and dark espionage failings—as bruising shaky-cam set-dressing. That’s effective, and remains a time-capsule in that regard, but is shallow commentary that stops at that level. Still others bolstered lizard-brained concerns with Islamophobia—how many Middle East-set thrillers started with the distant sound of a muezzin over an ominous opening?—and retrograde ideas. Even the horror movies—Saw, Hostel, and, the best, a gutsy remade Hills Have Eyes diptych from the thoughtful gore-meister Wes Craven et al—were torturous, spilling innocents’ viscera as we learned the depravity our worst representatives in the wars carried out in our name.

Some filmmakers eventually found ways to draw more directly on the terror of the day—through what might be coyly called “9/11 imagery” in the reviews of the time—and bring the unsettling feelings to life in fiction. Matt Reeves’ found-footage Cloverfield reconfigured the chaos of first-person footage into a terrifying kaiju attack. Spielberg perhaps had the best blockbuster reactions—Minority Report’s corrupt paranoid pre-crime units presaging the Patriot Act, The Terminal the first studio picture to include the new Department of Homeland Security, and the one-two punch of the terrifyingly vivid War of the Worlds and mournful historical revenge thriller Munich making our post-9/11 anxieties rich cinematic texts. Others, like Michael Bay’s grinding globetrotting Transformers bringing down buildings all over the world in outsized spectacle, played both sides—skewering and celebrating might-make-right jingoism. Even some superhero movies—the X-Men’s haunted Others, in particular—managed to strike a tuning fork on the tenor of the times. On television, the complicated response blasted out in propagandistic ads and TV movies. (Even Disney Channel aired tributes to the American flag, and did a story of 9/11 from the perspective of an aircraft carrier in an original movie, Tiger Cruise.) Some burst out as the ticking clock hook of 24’s right-wing urgency to its one-man terror-preventing violence; the brooding slow-rolling cyclical horrors of Battlestar Galactica’s sci-fi warfare was the tortured left-wing hawkish dove on the flip side.

What the public generally didn’t want from its screen time, however, was any direct consideration of the War on Terror. Fantasy ruled the day—especially ones that dealt indirectly in uplift—a la the New York resilience of Sam Raimi’s cheerful Spider-Man or entirely in magical characters’ made-up realms: Harry Potter, Hobbits, Narnians.  Direct adaptations of the events of 9/11, no matter how well-intentioned, like United 93 or World Trade Center, underwhelmed. War stories, or war-inspired stories, flopped worse. I somehow saw a bunch as they were new, making me one of the few to hit all these, I imagine: Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Grace is Gone, Stop-Loss, Lions for Lambs, Redacted, Body of Lies, Fair Game, Syriana, The Kingdom, A Mighty Heart, and more I’m forgetting, I’m sure. Some are quite good; others are listless and stumbling in their own self-important messaging.

On the doc side, everything from verite to issue statements flowed. None were as wide-ranging as Adam Curtis’ attempt to understand the philosophical origins and implications of the crisis: The Power of Nightmares. Nor were they as electric as left-leaning populist provocateur Michael Moore’s last true lightning rod moment as an agitprop activist documentarian: Fahrenheit 9/11. A persuasive, enraging, sly and upsetting argument against Bush’s handling of 9/11 and its aftermath, the movie remains a great time capsule of mainstream left-wing dissent in the moment. It was a surprisingly big hit in the election year summer of 2004, when it felt like it might actually win Democrats the presidency. We know how that turned out. We also know how irredeemable viral conspiracy theory docs, like Loose Change, prefigured the new media waves of disinformation and “doing your own research” that has walled off swaths of the American public from reality. Better captures of the paranoia and devastation that was the fallout and blowback of the times can be found in Laura Poitras’ work chronicling violent wars abroad and digital wars everywhere. Many attempts to wrestle with the meaning of the moment in the moment fell short, victims of a cultural conversation that just didn’t want to confront the ugly truths head on. It was Support the Troops or be silent, The (Dixie) Chicks told to Shut Up and Sing, talk show hosts cancelled for questioning the misinformation fed to them as reason to spark a forever war. Rare was the serious consideration given to understanding the moment deeply, that a way to Support the Troops and Be American could be to help us avoid making grave mistakes.

So here we are, 20 years later, with the images of that fateful day long since passed into the history books, while the conflicts and ideas stirred up by them linger in our increasingly polarized and poisoned discourse. We’ve had many good articles and essays over the years, and some good documentaries. And now the 9/11 imagery has long since passed into visual cliche. The shock of the new has softened. Pull up footage from that day—YouTube users have uploaded full programming from the morning shows breaking in with the jolting alarm; they make for a fascinating rewatch—and it’s easy to see why the tremendous upset and reverberating consequences are hard to capture and synthesize. The real raw moment— not reconfigured into superpower fantasy or topical terrorism thrillers—remains a rare sight on our screens. Zack Snyder touched it for his breathtakingly pessimistic Superman and Batman, and the visceral negative reaction from many in the audience—critics and Joe Popcorn alike—proved the toppling towers are still a bruised sore spot, especially if you’re selling it as futility and fallibility, something a superhero can’t stop. It still hurts, despite and perhaps because we have yet to fully digest its impact, the buried psychological wounds of seeing this mass casualty event repeated ad infinitum for years.

How will we ever process this open wound, when the ways we’ve covered it up are to let its intense emotions get ignored, trotted out only by hypocritical politicians and pundits in diminishing (fingers crossed) attempts to goose the public’s appetite for further war. (Look no further than the outsized opprobrium Biden has received in the press for ending the war in Afghanistan. We can argue the merits of the moment, but let’s not pretend it’s not two decades of mistakes that got us to this point.) The smoking towers have joined the indelible moments of history, the kind those who weren’t yet born look at in dreadful amazement, asking of us older folks, “Where were you when…?” Meanwhile the confusion of that day has metastasized in our fearful, paranoid, conspiratorial discourse of these days. I often recall Susan Sontag’s essay for The New Yorker’s issue the week after the towers fell. She wrote: “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. ‘Our country is strong,’ we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.” Alas. The stupefying effects of such massive trauma continue.

This milestone anniversary has, understandably, turned many of our minds back to that day. With the increasing distance of time, the culture at large has been able to move somewhat closer to Sontag’s hope. We did end up being stupid together, but historical awareness, and a sense of moving beyond the simple projections of strength, can be seen in new reconsiderations. Now studios have taken some attempts to retell it to us beyond the references and debates that it used as the grist for so many plots over the years. (Yet it’s still all about what can be sold to us, isn’t it?) Disney through National Geographic released 9/11: One Day in America on Hulu (notably not the Disney+ NatGeo tab). It opens with a disclaimer: “The following program shows…intense scenes of suffering and trauma.” There’s something we weren’t so lucky to get twenty years ago. It’s immediate and intense. Here is a six hour experience that takes us hour by hour through the day, using many first-hand videos and audio intercut with newly recorded testimonies from survivors. Some footage is familiar, but the biggest moments sneak in with a preserved stunned surprise, and from angles that are unexpected. It restores the day’s despair through a methodical accounting of the process, seen through the lenses that happened to be in the right place to see. This NatGeo project has a weight—comprehensive, all encompassing, present-tense cut with the still-rattled words of those who lived it. Every new piece of information—specifics of injuries, coincidences, consequences—reminds the viewer that a mass tragedy on this scale is built out of thousands of individual tragedies.

This feels like an essential historical accounting. Made in conjunction with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, it has a funereal quality, partly the simple staging and industrial art-installation reels of primary sources, partly the low strings droning on the score, the pace’s patient unfolding, the heavy accumulation of detail. (It also reminded me of The Washington Post’s art critic’s writing, on the occasion of that museum’s opening, that it’s “a hellish descent into a dark place, where a tape loop of death and destruction is endlessly playing.”) The full picture in this documentary emerges with deliberate, harrowing slowness, with considered unflinching images artfully arranged to reconstruct the story, and draw us back into not just the facts, but the feeling of that moment with the benefit of being able to see a full panorama instead of the immediate gripping pinpricks of confusion. It lingers on its shots, lets the enormity descend with grim reality. I watched it with my shock and sorrow renewed. But the documentary is also, in its length and shape, soberingly manipulative, with anecdotes coached to have bitter stinging revelations and delayed gut-twisting reveals. Because it narrows its focus to just the day in question—not making large claims about What It Meant or Where It Went—the power and weight is maintained throughout, though it slips when it feels the need to nod toward later events for the interview subjects. And even as it provides the horrible hows, it studiously avoids the just-as-uncomfortable whys. As it goes on and on, it can occasionally get lost in narratives even as it tries to recreate experiences of the day. I can understand the temptation. The loss and pain and violence and grief is still difficult to take in. No wonder we’ve yet to fully process it.

The events of the day are too large to contain. Although it is important to understand the experience of that moment, it’s just as important to see the world it wrought, the unsettledness left in its wake. To narrow our focus risks simplifying our understanding. Take Apple TV+’s contribution to the anniversary doc space: 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room. It has incredible access and interviews polished to a confident shine. The talking heads include: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and many other high-ranking government officials from the time. They speak simply and clearly in a standard oral history way. Which means they’re also speaking for posterity quite obviously aware of the way these comments will pass into public record. I found a certain interest in their words about the day—where they were, what they claim they thought, some little details and unexpected comments. But the thing is so professional and poised that it never once asks the difficult questions of its powerful people. They don’t have to reckon with their warmongering and other mistakes that followed. And in that context, the stark judgements the movie leans into feel all the more unseemly. If Nat Geo’s accounting is sometimes heavy-handed, at least it’s also experiential, and generally uses good judgement in picking out its use of the day’s footage and audio; War Room uses it to goose suspense as if the events aren’t plenty gripping without cheap glossy embellishment. The film treats the day with all due enormity, but won’t let it speak for itself. It has people who were in important positions tell us little more than we’d get from anyone.

Good news, then, for those looking for context, that Spike Lee understands that day is one major inflection point at the dawn of our turbulent young century. Hence his epic new documentary for HBO, the complicatedly named NYC Epicenters: 9/11→2021½, frames the last twenty years as a series of shocks to the country’s system, bookend by calamities beyond our control that nonetheless spun further out of control through our mistakes. The film runs nearly eight hours, told in several chapters, beginning with 2020, reeling forwards, then backwards, tumbling back through the past couple decades. Lee starts with the pandemic, proceeds into the political turmoil of recent years, the various ugly outbursts of violence and prejudice flowing through our culture. He hits the highlights. Or lowlights, as the case may be. Elections. Uprisings. Police brutality. Insurrections. Massacres. Diseases. Disasters. And yet, because Lee is such a jovial interlocutor and clever filmmaker, he weaves the story of these decades like a juggling act between sorrow and uplift, honesty and curiosity. It’s filtered through his personality, filled with well-chosen archival footage, ironic juxtapositions, emphatic intertitles, eccentric observations, and passionate pleas. One of its most moving sequences is a wordless one: an Aaron Copland fanfare playing over film of the World Trade Center being built.

And because Lee expands the frame of the story, he talks to all manner of New Yorkers: governors, mayors, senators and congresspeople, yes, but also: actors and activists, nurses and journalists, teenagers and teachers, doctors and lawyers, writers and witnesses, firemen and firebrands, experts and bystanders. (This expansiveness also led him to lengthy sequences with 9/11 conspiracy theorists removed before that episode aired.) Here’s a film that understands we’ve lived through two decades bracketed by tragedy and buffeted by unrest. It also knows it happened to people with perspective and experience. It’s a loving appreciation of the people of New York and a testimony to their resilience. And in doing so it becomes a testament to the qualities that just might see us through: diversity, perseverance, and love for one’s neighbor. This we should be able to understand.

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