Ready for 9/11?
Note: I wrote this column before seeing United 93.
On September 11, 2001, I was in Toronto for its film festival. By noon, the dayís films were cancelled. I spent some time watching the news coverage and also called family and friends. But mostly I wandered around the city trying to comprehend what happened. Here I was at a film festival and real life became a bad disaster movie. The films resumed the next day and I used them to help me avoid the fear, anger, and sadness that would have otherwise engulfed me. A few weeks later a friend wondered when Hollywood would produce the first 9/11 film. With everyoneís feeling so raw, I couldnít imagine putting the tragedy on the silver screen. ďIt will be at least ten years,Ē I said.
Turns out I was wrong by more than half. United 93 opened on April 28, and World Trade Center is coming this summer. These films have sparked nationwide debate. Are we ready for these types of films? The New York Times, the Washington Post, and Newsweek have all weighed in on the subject. Patrick Goldstein wrote an excellent column in the Los Angeles Times arguing that a 9/11 film is long overdue. But others feel differently. At one New York theater, people cried and yelled ďToo soon!Ē during the trailer for United 93. When enough people had complained, the theater pulled the trailer. Paul Greengrass, the writer-director of United 93, has reportedly made every effort to be respectful of his subject. He met with all the families of the flightís victims and solicited their input for the story. These families have enthusiastically endorsed the film. Still, many believe that it is too soon or that any attempt to depict 9/11 would, by definition, be exploitive.
One issue is that 9/11 was unlike any event in our nationís history. Never before had so many American civilians died on American soil from a violent attack. The images were seen around the world. We can all be thankful that this has only happened once, but it means we have no reference point, no model, nothing we can look at to determine when the right time would be to relive the tragedy on film.
I canít help wondering though, whether the reason that people say itís too soon is really because 9/11 is fresh in our minds. For most of us, those not directly affected by 9/11, life got back to normal pretty quickly. Sure, 9/11 comes up when we read the news, discuss foreign policy, or wait longer at the airport. But itís not at the forefront; itís become part of our history. We even see it as fodder for jokes on TV.
Recently I thought back to when the full impact of 9/11 hit home for me. It wasnít that day. It was when I returned from Toronto. I read about the personal stories--the people at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the passengers on those flights. I read about the police and firefighters who went into the Trade Center and never came back. Most important, I read about the parents who lost their sons and daughters, the kids who lost their parents, and the many who lost their spouses. 9/11 was not one event; it was thousands of lives that were irrevocably changed.
As Jon Stewart joked at the Oscars, films donít solve any problems. But films can raise awareness. Think of the national focus on the Holocaust when Schindlerís List came out. Think of the spotlight on WWII after Saving Private Ryan.
Is there any need to raise awareness of 9/11? Everyone knows what happened. It wasnít that long ago. The answer might be found in Stalinís line that one death is a tragedy but a million deaths are a statistic. Over time, for most of us, the memory of the individuals fade. 9/11 becomes one event again, and the deaths become a number.
Maybe that explains why so many of the families of the 9/11 victims are glad that these films are coming out. For them, the memories of the individuals never faded. 9/11 always was a personal tragedy, and it always will be. Maybe the families want the rest of us to again realize that these were real people who died with their own families, friends, stories, and hopes. Maybe they want us to again honor the bravery and courage of the many who lost their lives trying to save others. Maybe they want us to again reflect on those that lost spouses, children or parents that horrific day.
So is America ready for 9/11 on film? I donít know. The box office for United 93 might shed some light, but even that wonít completely answer the question. The only question we can truly answer is whether each of us is ready, or better yet, whether each of us is willing. I think back to a Holocaust memorial with only one word: ďzachor,Ē which is Hebrew for ďremember.Ē Sure, we all knew that the Holocaust happened. But that memorial was a reminder to pause and reflect on the lives that were lost, on the suffering caused by hate and cruelty.
No, Iím not ready to see United 93, but Iím willing. Iíll see it because the many tragedies of 9/11 have been shut away at the back of my mind for too long. Itís important that I remember.
May 1, 2006