How the tragic day shaped pop culture -- for the better and worse.
The 9/11 anniversary obliges us to consider the changes that have been thrust upon us since that terrible Tuesday morning. Most pixels, ink and airtime are being devoted to how 9/11 and its consequences affected our greatest city, our politics and freedoms, our international standing and self-perception, our view of the world—and understandably so. But 9/11 also left a lasting mark on the everyday stuff of Americana, especially television and movies.
Not only did 9/11 make those distracting news-tickers a permanent part of our TV screens, it also spawned and/or propelled an entire genre of TV shows and films centered around global terrorism.
“The Unit,” “24,” “Threat Matrix” and “E Ring” all focused expressly on counterterrorism—some more effectively and convincingly than others. Likewise, the 9/11 attacks heavily influenced the plotlines and story arcs of “The West Wing,” “CSI: New York” and “Rescue Me.” The glimpse at the apocalyptic that 9/11 gave us opened a window for programs such as “Jericho” to explore not just an assault on America, but a collapse of America.
At the other end of the spectrum, the short-lived sitcom “Arrested Development” used the war in Iraq as foil for several episodes, while the prime-time cartoon “American Dad” took cheap shots at the embattled CIA.
Several films wrestled with 9/11 and its consequences. A slew of war movies and counterterrorism movies—among them, “Body of Lies,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Jarhead,” “Rendition” and “Brothers”—dealt with the high costs and hard choices of what one historian has aptly called “the wars of 9/11.”
Likewise, the latest adaptation of the Batman franchise—with its terrorist villains, unappreciated hero, complicated moral dilemmas and grim remedies—seems a thinly-veiled parable for the post-9/11 world.
Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” stitched together facts, half-truths, opinions and conjecture to convince viewers that the Bush administration ginned up a post-9/11 panic to torch the Constitution. Given that Moore’s man in the White House is relying on military commissions set up by the Bush administration, has kept in place or expanded Bush’s post-9/11 intelligence orders, continues to employ Bush’s indefinite detention orders and has extended the hated PATRIOT Act, we can only wonder why Moore hasn’t yet produced a sequel. (Of course, we know the answer.)
For my money, there are four 9/11-related films that stand out from the rest.
Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” is solid. The film’s depiction of the hell that 9/11’s first-responders went through is as close to terrorism’s consequences as anyone would ever want to get. The heroism of everyday people, the triumph of the human spirit and the American spirit, the average American’s willingness to serve and help, and the amazing power of faith and family to sustain us, are conveyed in a bruising, exhausting but ultimately uplifting two hours.
Set in the 1970s, Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” uses Israel’s relentless hunt for those who perpetrated the terror attacks on the Israeli Olympic team in 1972 as something of a parable for America’s response to 9/11, offering a thinly veiled critique of a vengeance-focused policy.
At the conclusion of the film, after eliminating nearly a dozen people connected to the Munich attacks, the leader of the Israeli kill team has second thoughts and challenges his erstwhile boss. Meeting in a Manhattan park, they engage in a heated argument about justice and vengeance, murder and killing.
“Did we accomplish anything at all?” the assassin asks, pointing out that everyone he has killed has been replaced by another terrorist. “There’s no peace at the end of this,” he says, sliding into the violence-begets-violence trope.
Taking a more realist tack, the grizzled spymaster offers a cold, calculating response. “Why cut fingernails,” he observes, “if they grow back?”
His point is that Israel’s war on terrorism will go on as long it has to go on.
As the scene and the film end, the camera pans away to reveal the World Trade Center in the background. The surprising piece of trick photography leaves the viewer pondering how best to fight and defeat this enemy.
In a similar way, “The Kingdom,” which is set in modern-day Saudi Arabia, at once seems to endorse and yet question the use of force to counter jihadist terrorism. After a terrorist attack on a U.S. facility in Saudi Arabia, a team of FBI agents is dispatched to investigate and avenge the attack.
The film reminds us that there can be common ground between people on opposite sides of cultural divides, that diplomacy can only go so far and that force has its place. But like “Munich,” it leaves the viewer with the helpless feeling that this war will go on for many years. The point is driven home by the film’s parallel opening and concluding scenes.
In the first scene, after the casualties are counted, the lead FBI agent whispers something to console his grieving colleague. We don’t know what he says, but whatever it is, it works. Then, at the end of the film, after a shootout claims a Saudi man, his grandson is similarly consoled by other whispered words, which, we learn are the same as what the FBI agent had said: “We’ll kill them all.”
Finally, “United 93” reminds us that America’s war on terror actually began on Flight 93, when its 40 passengers and crew mounted a heroic effort to wrest control of the doomed plane. “They were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world,” director Paul Greengrass observed after he released his documentary-style film.
“United 93” begins marching toward its crescendo by offering snapshots of modern American life. We hear fragments of conversations about vacations in Europe, business in New York, family in California. Laptop computers and cell phones serve to underscore how self-contained, detached, even myopic these unsuspecting heroes are.
By circumstance, their plane was doomed to play a part in history on September 11, 2001. But by choice, by their collective will, they would actually change history and spare their countrymen yet another bloody, psychological trauma. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, the objective of Flight 93’s hijackers was to attack “symbols of the American Republic: the Capitol or the White House.”
But before they rewrite the final chapter of that terrible Tuesday, the passengers wrestle all the emotions we came to know in the days that followed their sacrifice: confusion and disbelief, shock and anger, desperation and despair, fear and terror.
Like us, they argue about what to do and consider other options: Can we negotiate? Do they want a ransom? Can we just turn back home? They pray and cry and finally come to grips with the only option left. “We’re alone,” one of them grimly explains. “No one’s going to help us.”
As the passengers progress through their light-speed metamorphosis, Greengrass cuts back and forth to air-traffic controllers, FAA officials and military command centers, drawing us into a swirl of chaos and confusion. Veterans of combat know it as the fog of war, and it can overwhelm even the best soldiers, most powerful armies, most technologically sophisticated nations.
But the fog lifts quickly for United 93. In the span of a half-hour, they piece together the puzzle on their own—with no help from CNN—and take the fight to the enemy.
For those Americans who still stumble about in the post-9/11 fog, “United 93” points a way out.