The seventh anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 passed quietly last week, seemingly without notice. I didn’t subject myself to the rebroadcasted footage that was shown on all the major news stations, and hardly anyone I knew even mentioned the significance of the date. Later, some of my friends even admitted to forgetting, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a sign of indifference.
Since that day in 2001, we’ve been bombarded with repeated images to the point where they hardly even elicit shock anymore. The media is responsible for this, obviously, but not just the news stations: the images have found their way into all mediums, from paintings to poems to books. Out of all these art forms, though, movies have easily had the greatest influence.
Five years after the tragedy, 2006 brought in the banner year for movies, in which Hollywood released two cinematic accounts of the Sept. 11 events. And, while hardly good, they were both certainly memorable. Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” were two very different movies, in the sense that the latter had big-name stars and an epic scope, while the former was a “small” movie with no recognizable names. But they were both indicative of what’s wrong with the way in which Sept. 11 has been approached by filmmakers. Quite honestly, those movies were offensive.
Granted, you could argue that Greengrass and Stone had perfectly honest intentions. Their films are clearly pro-American, and they obviously glorify the individuals who put their lives on the line. But why not make documentaries? Why not tell the real stories?
The simple truth is that filmmakers are quick to exploit whatever, and whoever, they can to make a good film. Money hardly figures into it. When Oliver Stone signed on to direct “World Trade Center,” he wasn’t doing it for the green (of which he has plenty) — he was doing it for the glory. They want the recognition, the admiration that comes from making a film that truly moves people. And how could a film that restages the events of Sept. 11 not move people?
It was difficult to judge the quality of “United 93” and “World Trade Center” when they were first released. Even as little as two years ago, the wounds were still sore, and virtually anyone with the slightest bit of compassion was hesitant to pan them. Thankfully, now that those same wounds are, if not healed, at least not as fresh, it’s possible to see the films for what they are: manipulative, exploitative Hollywood cash-cows.
It’s not that filmmakers shouldn’t tell stories about Sept. 11, but in our media-driven age, when anyone with a computer can go online and watch the real footage over and over, it seems odd that filmmakers would feel the need to recreate those events to put on the big screen. Do we really need to sit through a two-hour simulation of something we all, to varying degrees, experienced in real life? Must we really go through the wringer again, just so a couple of Hollywood big-shots can win their Oscars?
If a film is going to tackle the atrocities of Sept. 11, it should do so from a different angle. A perfect example would be the virtually ignored Adam Sandler film “Reign Over Me,” which dealt not with the day itself, but with the fallout. In the film, Sandler plays a man hanging onto the last threads of his sanity after his family is killed during the terrorist attacks. The film is about dealing with grief, something that many people experienced firsthand and could relate to. While the film was flawed, it didn’t resort to the same maudlin, exploitative tactics that the aforementioned films did.
Another film that serves as a surprisingly potent variation on the subject is the J.J. Abrams-produced “Cloverfield.” I know, I know — it’s a monster movie. But so was “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” (1956), and that’s generally regarded as the first film to openly address the horrors Japan experienced after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The visual metaphor is an underused weapon in the filmmaker’s arsenal, and “Cloverfield,” with its shaky camcorder footage of a devastated New York City, makes for an unusual and unpretentious representation that’s still familiar enough to bring it all home.
Filmmakers should address Sept. 11 in ways different from how Paul Greengrass and Oliver Stone did; instead of dramatizing episodes in typical, sappy ways that do nothing but play upon the pathos already inherent in the news stories most people watched, filmmakers should approach the stories from new angles. This way, they’ll prevent their films from becoming little more than flat made-for-TV movies, which, frankly, “United 93” and “World Trade Center” already resemble.