Everyone copes with tragedy in their own way. I am a student of media history and popular culture, and so part of how I cope with tragedy (as well as many other things) is by attempting to understand it through the prisms of media history and popular culture. And so, as we recognize the 5th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, I offer this analysis of how the tragedy has been reflected in American popular culture.
Historically, it has usually taken some time for American popular culture to begin to deal directly with an event, especially a traumatic one, in fictional form. The first motion pictures dealing with the Vietnam War in a substantive fashion did not appear until several years after the end of our nation's involvement in that conflict. The same has proven to be true with 9/11. It is only this spring and summer, in the lead up to this week's 5th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, that the tragedy has begun to appear on American movie screens.
Attempts to treat 9/11 in fictional form remain fraught with controversy. The ABC miniseries "The Path to 9/11" that aired Sunday night and last night is the most immediate example of this. I did not view the program, but Clinton admininstration officials, as well as the former president himself, protested and submitted petitions to ABC objecting to what they say are the broadcast's inaccuracies regarding the Clinton White House's supposed missteps in the months and years prior to the attacks. Although the network reportedly re-edited some scenes, it disregarded calls to cancel the broadcast of the miniseries and it aired as scheduled.
The two motion pictures that have so far dealt directly with the attacks, "United 93" (which came out this past April in theatres and just last week on home video) and "World Trade Center" (which came out in theatres last month), have also not been free of controversy. Some minor uproar surfaced when the trailers for "United 93" started to play in theatres to audiences unprepared for the intensity of the action therein. Fear of renewed anti-Muslim sentiments also accompanied the film's release, and the portrayal of one German passenger urging appeasement with the hijackers was thought inaccurate and potentially inciteful.
The fact that the director of "World Trade Center" was the famously controversial Oliver Stone did nothing to allay fears of misrepresentation or even of the dramatization of 9/11 conspiracy theories in the film. (The general consensus, though, which I agree with, is that the film is one of Stone's most restrained. The only group dismayed by Stone's directorial performance are the 9/11 conspiracy theorists who are upset that he didn't include such speculative material.) Some of the families of victims portrayed are reported as being upset with the very existence of the film (although the families and real life counterparts of the two main characters, Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin, cooperated fully and support the film).
The two films, "United 93" and "World Trade Center," are very different and yet they share one key characteristic: they are both hopeful stories of 9/11. "United 93" is about the only of the four planes on which the terrorists' goal was thwarted. Due to the fact that it was the last to be hijacked, the passengers of United 93 were able to learn of the earlier attacks and prevent the plane from hitting its target, the U.S. Capitol. "World Trade Center" is about two of the very few people (only twenty total) who were rescued from the rubble of the WTC. That the filmmakers in each case (as well as the studios releasing the films) chose these stories to tell says a lot about the state of popular culture in relation to 9/11. The subject matter in general is still volatile enough that telling these kinds of hopeful stories is one way of appealing to audiences and mitigating potential controversy.
Although both films are naturally intense, "United 93" is probably the more intense of the two, due to the fact that the bulk of the action claustrophobically takes place on board the title plane. Director Paul Greengrass utilizes handheld camerawork throughout pretty much all of the airplane scenes, which further destabilizes the imagery. "United 93" is populated by mostly unknown actors, which helps to make it seem more documentary-like in nature (since there are no movie stars with which to identify). Besides the on board sequences (which make up the last third of the film exclusively), there are scenes showing the activity in both the national civilian air traffic control center and the NORAD military air control center, as both track all four hijackings and come to realize separately what is happening. As a result, the unfortunate lack of coordination between the civilian and military air authorities serves as a subtle theme in the film.
In contrast, after the sequence in which the twin towers collapse on top of the Port Authority police officers that are its central characters, "World Trade Center" becomes almost a minimalist drama of small gestures and big hopes. The two officers portrayed by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena are for most of the film trapped in the rubble, pinned under large slabs of concrete. The two actors' performances under these circumstances are rather remarkable since they consist almost completely of relatively subtle eye and mouth movements. More activity occurs in the scenes featuring the two officers' families (which are intercut with the scenes under the rubble) than occurs with the officers themselves. If there's anything to criticize about "World Trade Center" its that the film gets a little melodramatic during and after the rescue of the two men, although given the timing and the subject this is perhaps understandable.
The most hopeful thing about "World Trade Center" is in the dramatization of the selflessness of the rescuers. The theme of goodness and civility in the face of great tragedy and disaster runs deep in the film. The rescue of John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Pena) is not just a hopeful story but an example of the many, many, often lesser but still important acts of kindness between strangers that took place not just in New York City and Washington, but all over America on September 11, 2001. For a short time (too short), America was a different place, sadder to be sure, but in some ways better. If only the instincts that were shown that day and week could have been preserved and extended.
One of the things that "World Trade Center" and "United 93" do for probably most viewers is serve as reminders of what happened on 9/11. For those of us that were not directly involved in the attacks, know no one that perished, and have never lived in NYC or DC, these films make powerful impressions that remind us of the human toll of that day. We need reminding. Undoubtedly, there will be in the future more films, more treatments in the popular culture of the horrific events of 9/11. None of them will be as immediate and emotional as the first Letterman shows after the attack or the celebrity-studded benefit telethon shortly afterwards. Now several years removed from the events, they will not be as subtle as the baseball uniform patches and background set decorations of those first few months. Gestures such as Bono's flag-lined jacket and Springsteen's potent anthems would now be drained of meaning. And not all future fictional treatments of the attacks will offer hopeful stories such as "United 93" and "World Trade Center." But 9/11 is now part of American popular culture and of American culture in general, so we will continue to see it reflected in the products of our culture.
In the end, five years and counting since the tragedies of 9/11, it is perhaps this role that popular culture can serve in regards to the attacks: to remind us of what happened that day and to keep the emotions of that day alive in us. Not for reasons of vengeance or for reasons of nationalism, but for reasons of humanity, to make sure we remember the good that people are capable of under the most horrible conditions of duress and disaster. If we can find a way, some way, to keep at the forefront of our lives the impulse towards true civility and the instinct towards true kindness regarding our fellow men and women, then those that died and suffered on 9/11 will not have done so in vain. Popular culture, created and used in this fashion, might be one way to realize that need.
"9/11 showed us what human beings are capable of. The evil, yeah, sure. But it also brought out the goodness we forgot could exist. People taking care of each other for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. It's important for us to talk about that good, to remember...."
--Nicolas Cage as John McLoughlin in "World Trade Center"