Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Re-creating the 9-11 Attacks

"We prepared for everything. Not for this. Not for something this size. There's no plan."

John (Nicolas Cage)

No one who lived through Sept. 11, 2001, will ever forget it. Most of us didn't experience the life–or–death struggle that some did, but that doesn't mean that most of us weren't affected by what happened that day.

That, I suppose, was what I liked about Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," which premiered on this day in 2006. In the first few years after those infamous attacks, there was a real effort to make sure people didn't forget what had happened. Only a few years after those terrorist attacks, we were already seeing movies about them. There was a made–for–TV movie that essentially dramatized all the now–familiar recordings from that day.

Then there was "United 93," which premiered nearly 3½ months before "World Trade Center," and it basically told the tale of the passengers whose revolt led to the crashing of their plane in a Pennsylvania field instead of the White House or Capitol building.

I can't help wondering if those movies took the edge off that experience. Did the movies contribute to a perception that the attacks of 9/11 didn't really happen, that they were dramatizations for our collective entertainment?

How incredible it is to think that many of the most painful lessons we thought we learned on Sept. 11, 2001 have been all but forgotten by our country's leadership less than 15 years later.

"World Trade Center" told the mostly unknown story of how the families of the victims reacted to what was happening.

For those on the ground, that may have been the most traumatic image that played in their minds that day — how the families of the victims had to watch helplessly while the drama played out. In the office where I was working on that day, I heard many people speaking of the horror they imagined the passengers on the plane experiencing. In the absence of the actual horrific images of that morning — there was no TV in the office at that time — nothing else so moved them to emotional displays as that mental image.

At the time I found it easier to function if I did not think about things like that. But you couldn't ignore it forever, and movies have always been powerful providers of provocative images. Combine that with Stone's directorial skills, and you have an impressive force.

It was also an heroic tale.

The movie, critic Roger Ebert wrote, "is about two men who, against all odds, survived the collapse of the Twin Towers."

Clearly, that is a compelling story line, and ostensibly it was a true story; many parts of it undoubtedly were true, but some parts apparently were exaggerated.

And some parts were not given adequate treatment — in the eyes of some. There were some widows of victims of the attacks who were critical of the involvement of family members of other victims, producing what they thought was a slanted treatment of the subject.

The treatment was a little heavy handed at times, too.

For example, at one point, a closeup of an open Bible could be seen. It was open to a passage in Revelation and was followed by a shot of a cross, which was "piling it on a bit thick," Ebert observed.

Ebert also pointed out that Stone "Christianize[d]" the story "in ways that go beyond the beliefs of his characters."

"The problem with movies about individuals in such extreme situations," Ebert wrote, "(perhaps especially those that try to hew closely to the accounts of the survivors who lived the events depicted) is that they are stripped of some of their individuality. They are, by necessity, reduced to human essentials, and that doesn't always make for good movie drama. Yes, anyone in this situation would think, and probably say, something like, 'Tell my wife and children that I love them.' But since we don't know much about who these guys were before 9/11 (presented here as a hazy day rather than the crystal clear fall morning we remember — where's CGI when you need it?), some moments in 'WTC' feel more generic than personal or universal."

I think a big problem with dramatizing events that most if not all of your viewers are likely to remember is that people remember things through the prisms of their own experiences. What they saw meshes with what they were thinking and what they were doing.

And the families are bound to have the most vivid memories of all. Pleasing them must be a nearly impossible objective to achieve.

So I don't fault Stone for failing to live up to their expectations. They want others to feel what they felt, and that is not possible. Only approximations are possible. But isn't that, ultimately, a filmmaker's mission — to make the audiences experience what the characters in the movie experienced?

I'm glad that filmmakers took on the topic of 9/11 quickly. But as I suggested earlier, perhaps they acted too quickly.

Of course, even when Stone has taken on events that were decades removed — "JFK" comes to mind — he has encountered resistance. Even so, there is something to be said for not dramatizing something until a couple of generations have passed.

But I guess that depends on the director, the subject matter and how it is handled. While there were many complaints about Stone's "Nixon," I heard from many people who shared my assessment of Anthony Hopkins' performance in the title role — and we were all old enough to remember Nixon. Hopkins didn't look like Nixon, and he didn't sound like Nixon, but he captured Nixon's persona perfectly.

The characters in "World Trade Center" were not familiar to audiences, only to those who knew the originals, so perhaps the two movies aren't really comparable.

Then again, perhaps Ebert was on to something when he observed that, since the audience was not familiar with the characters, some of the movie's moments felt "more generic than personal or universal."

Is that the fault of the cast or the director? The cast can only work with what it is given in terms of a script and directorial guidance.