It’s not a day that anyone who works in news wants to re-live. Remember? Yes. Re-live? No.
When those two planes crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 200, I held the title of movie critic for a daily Northeast Ohio newspaper. Although all the writers in the building held specific titles, most of which didn’t relate to what was happening on that tragic day, we all possessed one commonality – we were journalists.
I wasn’t a movie critic that day. I manned the wire feed looking for anything and everything related to those events that day. In the meantime, I had to put to rest my concerns for my wife who is an employee of the federal government who worked at the federal building in downtown Cleveland.
It was the second time I had to worry about her safety at work. The first was when Timothy McVeigh and his buddies decided to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City. It is not a fun experience.
My colleagues, most of whom took more prominent roles, worked to put together a special edition called for by our managing editor, Thom Fladung, who currently serves in that position at Cleveland Plain Dealer. I stayed for as long as I could endure it. I worked about 11 hours. Went home to my then 5-year-old son, hugged him then broke down in front of him, mourning the thousands of lives lost.
That day I realized that my world had changed – for the worse. I also realized that it was bound to change the movies coming out of Hollywood. Some thought the movie studios might change how they did business by changing the content in films. Fat chance. Along with a good story, nothing sells a movie better than sex and violence.
But something did change fundamentally. Some filmmakers turned inward, becoming more reflective. Others allowed the past to speak to what was happening in the aftermath of Sept. 11. And there was even a celebration of heroism.
It’s easy to remember Paul Greengrass’ superb United 93 (2006), a retellings of events that surrounded the hijacking of the flight that a group of heroic passengers eventually forced to crash in Shanksville, Pa. so that it couldn’t inflict catastrophic damage elsewhere. Greengrass made a documentary style film that stuck to the facts, but possessed all the emotion of a film that Hollywood would normally tweak with added melodrama.
Oliver Stone almost accomplished the same thing with World Trade Center, which told the story two of the final first responders – John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) - to be rescued. Stone, known for his more controversial fare, felt an obligation to play it straight with WTC.
It’s no coincidence that the studios released those films near the fifth anniversary of the attacks. I had the pleasure of attending the press junket in Chicago – one of my last as the movie critic at the paper where I work – and I’d be lying if I said the experience didn’t affect me.
I’ve been tongue tied during two junkets in my life – my first and my last. In addition to Cage and Pena, Stone brought McLoughlin in for interviews and it was difficult to not be emotionally moved by his story and subsequent suffering because of the injuries that he suffered.
I can’t even say I interviewed him because that moment felt so powerful to me. Duane Dudek of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel got in most of the questions as I came close to tears more than once.
But while those films explored the obvious stories associated with 9/11, others to follow were more subtle and psychological than direct. They probed. They analyzed and they moved viewers emotionally and if they were receptive forced them to ask questions.
One of the first came from native New Yorker Spike Lee. In 25th Hour, the story of drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) coming to grips to with the fact that he’s going to turn himself in to do a seven-year stretch in prison.
Throughout his journey in the film, Brogan uses his remaining time to look back at a life wasted and during one pivotal scene, as he peers over the ditch that is Ground Zero, he asks: “how did I get here” – a query that had to cross the minds of many Americans in the attacks aftermath.
America’s greatest filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, denied any relation between his brilliant Munich and 9/11. But it’s easy to draw attention to the similarities of the story of a group of Israeli agents assigned the task of hunting down those responsible for the deaths of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games in 1972.
The crucial scene show one of those Israeli agents discussing the Middle Eastern problem with a Palestinian counterpart that could easily be a discussion of situations that echo through to the present day with America.
Other films used specific moments in time to question the changes in American policy and culture in its wake. In George Clooney’s superb Good Night, and Good Luck, the actor-director uses the entertwined story of legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Straitharn) and the red scare of the McCarthy era to question the new powers given to the government and fear and paranoia gripped the United States since Sept. 11.
That paranoia remains somewhat in tact as filmmker Christopher Nolan explores in The Dark Knight (2008). Nolan uses the battle between Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (the late Heath Ledger) in Gotham City, a municipality that’s always been a version of New York City, to convincingly point out that in some way we’re all still hostages to terror.
A key moment in the movie when Bruce Wayne/Batman and his butler and partner Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) discuss the nature of terror and how it still echoes. The pivotal line: “Because some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Indeed. The more recent Batman movies aren’t the only comic book flicks to mine the psychological aspects of the tragedy. Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films did the same. Set in New York City, the movies are as much about the resiliency of New Yorkers in the wake of dealing with psychological terror as they are just fun romps. The 9/11 subtext, especially in the second film, is no accident Raimi said in my interview with him.
And you could tell that he was sincere. When a member of the press asked him to sign a theatrical poster that still had the Twin Towers in them from the first Spidey film, something that’s now a collector’s item, he politely declined citing personal reasons.
And that’s what 9/11 has become to those Americans who remember it – something deeply personal. One I’m not prepared to relive.
One day, I’ll be able to come across to my sons as the old codger father waxing poetic to my grown sons about how things used to be.
No full body scans at airports. No Patriot Act laws. And mostly – no fear.
Ah, yes. The good old days.
Cross posted at: www.examiner.com/cleveland