With a culture based so strongly around entertainment in the western world, we’ve never been squeamish about dramatisations of some of the darkest times in history. From the Trojan horse to the Titanic, you can bet there’s been at least one movie about any natural or man-made disaster in memory.
The reason we consume depictions of real-world horrors so avidly is because of a reflexive need for danger in art. The definition of escapism, after all, is experiencing the adrenaline of drama while we’re safe in the lounge room or cinema. We’re hunting animals and have been for 100 million years — the thrill of the hunt has been supplanted by a trip to the supermarket for a packet of chops, but our instinctive thirst for excitement hasn’t gone anywhere.
And after an endless procession of super-cop action movies, imagined natural disaster blockbusters and thrillers about serial murderers all start to look the same, there’s nothing as emotional as watching the recreation of a real-life tragedy. It comes built in with the sort of drama we want to consume.
So when we ask whether it’s too soon for movies about the events of September 11, we’re acknowledge there’s a need to recreate our history for the sake of cultural consumption — and the commercial imperative behind it.
Prior to the premiere screening of Spike Lee’s heist thriller Inside Man in April this year, Hollywood’s famed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre played the unsettling trailer to United 93. The film depicts the fate of the fourth airliner to be hijacked on the morning of September 11th, the one many believe was headed for the White House.
The trailer elicited the cries many have been asking ever since — audience members yelling ‘too soon’, one woman leaving in tears and the cinema subsequently pulling the trailer. Released in Australia last week, the film has played to mostly positive reviews (veteran film critic Roger Ebert described the film as faithful and respectful as well as deeply affecting).
And following the big budget studio turkey Alexander, Oliver Stone is back to doing what he does best — ruffling feathers. His film World Trade Center, releasing in Australia in October, shows the plight of the last two men pulled alive from the rubble of the twin towers, policemen John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena). The trailer contains the ominous roar of a passenger jet as its shadow races across the skyscrapers of New York, a scene certain to elicit similar shivers and cries (if not thoughts) of ‘too soon’ among viewers.
So as the argument reaches boiling point, just when should we be watching fictional accounts of terrorists attacking America, if at all?
Look at the films the CGI era made possible — films that delivered truckloads of profits to Hollywood coffers towards the end of the nineties. Movies like Armageddon, Independence Day and Deep Impact used the power of data processing to show us scenes of global destruction that directors of old — with their miniature models and badly superimposed stock footage — could only dream of.
They were becoming so de rigueur many Australians turned on the news on the morning of September 12 and thought they were watching a trailer for the latest blockbuster. What ensued was a sort of collective global guilt — we’d spent huge amounts of money both making and enjoying spectacles like the sight of planes flying into skyscrapers over the previous years. Suddenly they didn’t seem like so much fun any more.
Hollywood kept a respectful silence for as long as it could, but the big summer event movies full of cities blown away by nuclear blasts, washed away in tidal waves or stomped by monsters were too lucrative to stay away for long.
So in asking if it’s too soon to examine September 11 on film, maybe we should ask if it was too soon to get back to enjoying wide scale death and destruction in blockbuster movies as quickly as we did. Films like The Core (2003) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) showed similar scenes of disaster to the asteroids, tidal waves and comets of the pre-September 11 movies, and if we needed any reminding of how agonising real destruction could be, the clear morning of Boxing Day 2004 bought about the deaths of over 260,000 across the Indian Ocean, far more than the 2,752 caused by al-Qaeda three years before.
Okay, you might think United 93 and World Trade Center are different — they were real people, it really happened and we all lived through the horror thanks to CNN and Fox news. If that’s the case, where are the respectful drama/thrillers about the Dresden firebombing (24,000 dead) or the nuclear blasts at Hiroshima (140,000 dead) and Nagasaki (74,000 dead)? They’re the first in a long line of aggressive actions by the United States and its allies that have been the death of considerably more people than the victims of September 11 — most of them civilians.
Where’s the movie examining our collective horror at the March 2003 bombing of Baghdad, an attack launched on the basis of a threat that has since been proven baseless but which has killed almost 44,000 civilians (according to iraqbodycount.net) so far? The amount of news coverage of September 11 would undoubtedly have set new records in editorial volume, but have you read anywhere that the now 15-year-old bombing in Iraq has resulted in the destruction of ruins and artifacts from the Mesopotamian era — the rise of human civilisation?
It’s been said America needs about ten years to get over a war before it will make a movie about it. Platoon (1987), the first serious look at America’s collective agony over the Vietnam War, arrived 12 years after the war itself ended. Courage Under Fire (1996) came just seven years after the first Gulf War.
Both films depict the uniquely American experience, so it’s easy to forget they deal with military actions of very different outcomes. In the first Gulf War, American forces (as then-President George Bush promised) bombed Iraq back to the Stone Age with little resistance. In Vietnam, the pumped-up aggression, sheer number of troops and superior technology was no match for an enemy who knew his turf.
Like other American war films, United 93 and World Trade Center are about a formative act of aggression in America’s history — the difference being America and its people were the very visible losers. Just as importantly, the towers of the World Trade Centre were as familiar to us as the Harbour Bridge, Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower. It’s only natural we’d share America’s disbelief at their destruction at the hands of a bunch of zealots wielding knives.
But somewhere in an alternate universe, there’s a small number of controversial Iraqi filmmakers making and releasing movies that depict office dwellers, policemen and firefighters going about their business when suddenly bombs and missiles rain down from the sky. The unseen enemy flattens half the city (not just a handful of iconic buildings) and the movies zero in on individual stories of people whose children are torn limb from limb by nail bombs, who lie trapped in rubble for hours while rescuers try to reach them, whose wedding parties are bombed by errant ordnance.
And as Middle Easterners, Muslims and indeed everyone else might well be asking; is it too soon?