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Seven Years Later ... Can Hollywood Handle the Truth?
As the nation remembers and mourns that frightening and fateful day of seven years ago, all Hollywood signs point to a decidedly delicate treatment in reel time of one of the most barbaric acts of hatred to explode on American shores.
Surely, maverick (and mushmouth) Michael Moore had more to say on the topic -- that was not unexpected -- in taking the temp of the times in his firebranded "Fahrenheit 9/11," but what of more- mainstream directors? Was the call of "Auteur! Auteur!" loud enough to draw the best and the brightest to that bombshell of a catastrophe that had American self-confidence implode even as the terrorists extorted attention from all the world?
In seven years -- ironically, a lucky number that has taken on a sullen shadow this year -- can Hollywood be hit with accusations of the silent-movie treatment of 9/11? Or is it just waiting for the passage of time to pass judgment?
Certainly, movies about the Iraqi War have been more prolific if profligate in their messages; most of those desert storms have been sandblasted from memory. Too much, too soon, goes the notion that history and hysteria don't go together easily and accessibly in Hollywood.
But looking over the movies with the most impact, it is decidedly difficult to decipher why only two major efforts -- "World Trade Center" and "United 93" -- moved the audiences to consider all the ramifications of the ragged tear at the American heart on that day.
Not that there weren't other attempts: "September 11," a documentary drawing the focus of 11 diverse directors featuring their own perspectives, has some acolytes but was gone almost as fast as it alighted on screens, while "The Path to 9/11" followed a circuitous route of its own on its way to the small screen, accused of inaccuracies that, miracle of miracles, made even President Clinton blush. Or maybe it was just him turning red in the face from inferences that his administration won no cigar in its boondoggle of handling Osama Bin Laden.
Meanwhile, "The Great New Wonderful" was anything but in its "On the Town" examination of New York in the tragedy's afterlife. On a singularly award-winning note, however, "Twin Towers," a short documentary, didn't shortchange the era's emotional explosions on its path to winning an Oscar.
(Conversely, "102 Minutes," based on the book by Kevin Flynn and Jim Dwyer about NYPD's blues, hasn't been given the time of day for its TBA production.)
An Oliver Branch
Of all people, Oliver Stone, whose take on events has often been more his story than history, offered an Oliver branch of sensitivity in "WTC," his emotionally coruscating kudo to the firefighters who raked through the rubble of the infernal inferno and found a damning tragedy, no Dante's Comedy, awaiting them.
As for the unfriendly skies of history: "United 93," Paul Greengrass' uncanny, yet unnerving, re-creation of the flight that hijacked a nation's heart as a band of passengers reportedly raided the cockpit to collar the terrorists before the plane plummeted to shattered splintered dreams in a Pennsylvania field of nightmares, may have been too "good" for its own good.
"United 93," "WTC" ... who needs such visceral reminders of the viciousness that plays out on automatic pilot when man is at his worst?
We all do, Michael Shamberg, producer of "WTC," told me: "The Mideast reminds us of how we are all part of something, and this movie" -- his "WTC" -- "speaks to Jews, Christians and Muslims."
Speaking of impact, even the much-maligned ABC telefilm of "The Path to 9/11" had its fans: Who better to offer a keen perspective on the topic than former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, who headed up the 9/11 commission report upon which the controversial film was based?
"More people will see this than will ever read our report."
A reading of Greengrass offers a storyteller whose hewing to history maybe made its re-creation all that much more uncomfortable.
Ultimately, can art imitate life and its intimations of mortality? In criticizing the landmark NBC miniseries, "Holocaust," 30 years ago, survivor/novelist Elie Wiesel carped that art cannot do justice to the unjust; that, in the case of a movie that would become a record-shattering event for TV, its concentration on commercialism could not connect with the real horrors of the concentration camps.
Do Wiesel's words of wisdom fly now? Perhaps the black box of "United 93" revealed the blackest of intent of terrorism in all its infamy; on its final approach, approaching as closely as possible the real hell the passengers faced, the film alternately reeled in and repulsed viewers. "Any film at any time about 9/11 will be scrutinized carefully. I believe we've made the right film the right way," emphasized Greengrass.
Right on his heels at the time were a number of other projects by other filmmakers, some still being planned; others rerouted to eternal orbit.
Whether other films are made or not, maybe directors should heed the 9/11 call coming from someone whose memories echo with the explosions of that horrid day.
Allison Vadhan's mother, Kristin White-Gould, was caught in a moment of unwanted history when she boarded United 93. And the daughter continues to hope that memory will elevate tragedy to another plane of purpose.
As she noted in an online report, "A lot of us have a lot of pain we always have to live with, whether there are movies or not," she explained.
"Every which way, keep them coming, keep 9/11 in the minds of the next generation."
It was her way of offering, it seemed, a postmodern version of the excruciatingly needed exhortation culled from pains of the past: a promise and a plea of ... "Never again."