The major problem with using World War I as a backdrop for heroic acts is fairly simple and has always been obvious; it lacks romanticism as a historical event. Through a complex series of alliances and counter-alliances, the world’s powers found themselves pitting their empires against one another for no larger purpose than … pitting their empires against one another.
If Hollywood tries to make a film out of World War I, it will inevitably have to insert some degree of romanticism that would not be found easily in the pages of an impersonal history book (as is the case with Dean Devlin’s new production, Flyboys). Other pieces of history need no such saccharine coating, as the events themselves are so incredibly—and genuinely—romantic enough that to add anything to them is an insult to both the events and our emotional intelligence as observers. September 11 is one of those pieces of history.
There are two major schools of presentation when it comes to 9/11. The first is deceptively anemic. Show, not tell. The most powerful way to present 9/11 is to simply put it on display. Our reactions to the evil, the heroism, the pain, the anger and the pride of that day are intrinsic, guttural emotional reactions. They require no sweeping musical scores or gaudy flashbacks of times when things were better. They certainly don’t require Oliver Stone or Lifetime Channel sensibilities.
The best examples of how not to memorialize 9/11 aren’t hard to bump into. From documentary footage laced with poorly placed heroic music to A&E television films focused on weeping and the emphatic tugging of heartstrings, a large amount of 9/11 remembrance is pure exploitation. MSNBC’s coverage yesterday provided an excellent example. Featuring hip shaky-cam shots and pounding techno beats, the news station lets us know exactly what their producers and editors want us to feel. It’s as if the events themselves are fading from our individual memories as well as the national consciousness, and we are therefore left at the hands of Hollywood-style producers to fill in the gaps. Such a solution inevitably seeks to romanticize—and ultimately trivialize—reality.
Oliver Stone’s recently released World Trade Center is the worst of these hollow confections. From top to bottom, the film is laced with flourishes that insult our intelligence, both as an audience and as Americans. As if we don’t already know that the vile executors of 9/11 have their own special furnace in Hell, we need a stereotypical character (who does almost nothing else, mind) to say “bastards,” on multiple occasions. We are shown three-act character arcs that simply cannot exist within the confines of the treachery and the tragedy. For us, 9/11 is patented, packaged, and slapped on a plastic lunch box. It is a tear-jerking product to be sold.
The most honorable presentation of 9/11, in both spirit and in letter, was this spring’s much-publicized but little-seen United 93. Presented in a pseudo-documentary style—it even features Ben Sliney, FAA national operations manager as himself—United 93 is raw. There are no wide shots of destruction, no rousing chorus cues to let us know that it’s time to cry. Rather, it understands that the heroism of 9/11 needs no such sugarcoating. The film does not need to make moustache-curling monsters out of the hijackers, opting instead to present them in as realistic terms as possible. All rational viewers will reach the appropriate conclusions. United 93 contains no character arcs, no one-liners (even though the temptation to make one out of the famous “let’s roll” declaration must’ve been overwhelming), and no neat conclusions. By treating the subjects of film as real people performing real actions, United 93 honors the heroism seen on 9/11 in the best way possible.
The deeds of both good and evil seen on Sept. 11, 2001 are grand in scope and in potency. Just as the evils of al Qaeda’s hijackers require no black horse, hat, and gun to define them, the absolute good carried out by the firefighters, police, rescue workers, and passengers requires no empty sensationalism. Reducing such an important, watershed moment in American history to a palatable digest is not only dishonest, but disrespectful, too. If 9/11 is to be remembered and recognized appropriately, it must be done so in light of its historical importance, heroism, and cruelty; not for its ability to fit easily into the confines of “artistic” endeavors, most of which are aimed squarely at manipulation of the viewer and for no larger purpose. If and when the latter becomes the dominant form of thinking about Sept. 11, 2001, one can be sure that Americans as a whole will have forgotten the significance of 9/11—and why they cared so much in the first place. We should all therefore hope this never happens.