Too soon, or just too political?

Pair of 9/11 films isn’t illuminating – it’s nothing more than premature propaganda

by Don M. Burrows

It isn’t as though Hollywood is new to the game of making movies about national crises, especially during wartime.

These films often come with the predictable taglines – “courage” is the most common; “fight back” and “never forget” are others. But the climate for upcoming films based on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks seems permeated more by propaganda than an honest examination of terrorism and the place the United States holds in the world today.

Perhaps that’s why many have said it’s too soon to make films based on the tragedy. Nonetheless, Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” opens next week, with Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” to follow this summer.

The most common objection to making films about 9/11 is that the wounds of the event are still too fresh, the families’ grieving still too much to commercialize at the box office the deaths of 3,000 people. But the past two election cycles already have breached that level of crassness. So Hollywood should be given a pass there.

What’s more troubling is to contemplate how the audience will react to these films and what the purpose appears to be in releasing them now. It is, of course, possible that both Stone and Greengrass will tackle 9/11 with all the geopolitical baggage and complications that came with it, including an examination of U.S. policy and the consequences of the Bush administration’s reaction to the event.

This seems unlikely, however, given Greengrass’ director’s statement for “United 93,” which sounds as though his film will be a Bush bullhorn speech meshed into celluloid.

“The terrible dilemma those passengers faced is the same we have been struggling with ever since,” he writes. “Do we sit passively and hope this all turns out OK? Or do we fight back and strike at them before they strike at us?”

Of course, Greengrass also alludes to the “post-9/11 world,” Bush’s favorite political cudgel when his security measures are questioned and notes the day “changed our lives forever.”

True, perhaps, but in what way?

This is the gnawing question that undermines any film project on 9/11 so soon after it happened. History takes time to work itself out, and in the midst of the bombings, wars, legislation, spying and elections that have followed 9/11, one wonders whether directors can come up with any artistic expression right now other than those few and rigid camps that have been carved out since.

One would be hard-pressed to suggest 9/11 didn’t change our world. But one would be equally hard-pressed to define, so soon afterward the event, the exact nature of that change. That takes time, and projects so soon after inevitably will view the event through contemporary debate rather than a candid look at what happened.

Greengrass’ trailer and director’s statement certainly seem to suggest his 9/11 movie will be more of the variety of Frank Capra’s World War II “Why We Fight” than a more critical one.

The choice of the title is one clue, especially to those who remember the “unifying” rhetoric that so dominated discourse on 9/11 immediately after the tragedy. Being “united” has been, ever since, a byword for some for squashing dissent. If the 40 people aboard are indeed a microcosm of all of us in the fight against terrorism, as Greengrass suggests, what does their course of action mean for us? One thing seems clear from the director’s remarks: We are to view ourselves through those passengers and recognize the immediate danger facing all of us.

After all, to Greengrass, the world isn’t just different since the attacks; we now are living in a “new and terrifying post-9/11 world,” and this seems to tip his hand as to the kind of ideology that will be at work in his film. If one thing has been clear in the years since that tragic day, it’s that there are many in this country determined to keep us afraid in order to advance certain political agendas.

What’s Greengrass’ agenda? Who knows? But his film might feed our fears rather than our hopes and, in doing so, fuel the fire of a propaganda machine that might someday be the subject of its own film – it is hoped one more insightful, reflective and honest than the way many of us have dealt with 9/11 so far.

– Don M. Burrows welcomes comments at [email protected]