September mourn
BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - October 20, 2006 - 12:00am
Five years on, and the need for safety, for a protective sheath of emotional antiseptic – from terrorists on planes, from misguided world leaders, from gullibility to hatred – is still as requisite as it ever was since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. When another toxic Ann Coulter sound bite spreads like wildfire, there’s almost no time to run for cover; it all starts with an interview on the Today show or a segment on Hannity before it’s fair game for an O’Reilly rant and a Colbert punch line.

But while the most polarized op-ed pieces aim at the easiest of targets, those two towers that once stood over Lower Manhattan remain untouchable, at least to a pair of hands that don’t exercise the utmost respect. Is it really too soon for Hollywood to confront September 11th through an aperture of objectivity without sentimentality? And is that even fair to ask?

President Bush; Cindy Sheehan; Mark Foley; Iraq; that Lieberman kiss – all have become buzzwords in an election year spiced by the possibility of rocking the majority of both houses of the US Congress. Yet aside from the ceremonial silences and flag-waving that littered the television landscape last month, the avoidance of a subject as dangerous and volatile as 9/11 seems to be adequately mediating – or rather, eliminating – the push-pull between harmless indulgence and incendiary rhetoric.

ABC learned this the hard way when its Path to 9/11 strained credibility, outraged the DNC, and didn’t get many viewers to tune in anyway; it is "an irresponsible film," said the Los Angeles Times, that "lulls viewers into complacency, setting them up for the propaganda that is to follow." Perhaps Hollywood realized that tackling 9/11 is a thankless, no-win endeavor in this culture of pathological sensitivity; you’d think an industry that wears its politics on its sleeve would be cocking and firing its polemics, not only along the coasts but right in the heartland, too.

Just months after an Oscar season that celebrated (though ultimately copped-out on) the dynamism and vitality of message-movie politics, has Hollywood been pacified by the most infallible sentiment to govern the collective consciousness in decades?

Based on Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (which opened this week), the answer, in part, is a reverberating yes. Fear of recollection, of epiphany, of growth based on what happened that day forces a tribute that allows only for catharsis as a way of getting all the tears and pain and mourning out of our system, while shying away from self-evaluation. With the story of two Port Authority cops (played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña) trapped beneath the devastation of Ground Zero, Stone, one of the most controversial and outspoken filmmakers ever emphasizes the heroism and courage of that day to conveniently fit the archetypal template of uplift. Character roles are defined clearly, questions of moral ambiguity are set aside for the prioritization of easily-wrung emotion.

To be fair, I was sincerely moved by the film; but to what extent must the necessity for mourning be gratified before moving on becomes the most vital, if not digestible, question. Emotion without consequence – no matter how deeply affecting – eventually devolves into frivolity when not acted on. If tragedy wrought comforting pathos, can it not also provide answers – substantial, profound, difficult – when looked at from a different perspective?

Paul Greengrass’ United 93, about the passengers on an ill-fated United Airlines flight who fought back (before it crashed in a Pennsylvania field, killing everyone onboard), begins with one of the terrorists chanting in Arabic; the immediate effect is disarming and uncomfortable. When passengers begin boarding the half-empty plane, their fates already determined in history books forever, the air of dread and looming panic is wrenching to watch. Greengrass tells this story in real time, the same journalistic approach he used in 2002’s Bloody Sunday that convinces in its sincere artifice of the "real" world; mere verisimilitude is thus deemed insufficient when what you see before you is Greengrass’ steadfast version of what actually happened on that plane.

What feels like a rough cut is actually tautly edited footage; what seems like real people are actors on a soundstage. The heroism demonstrated on Flight 93 was anonymous: a group of strangers coming together in an act of collective bravery to fight an enemy it did not recognize. One sequence cuts back and forth between a person praying to his god, and another person praying to another god; that the first is a passenger and the second is a terrorist is wholly incidental. The selfish human hunger for religion has nullified its true meaning; prayer for prayer’s sake, rather.

Both films are based on true stories; the treatment each one is given, however, is very different. Stone used sloppy, literal-minded, Expressionistic techniques (that an out-of-nowhere hallucination of Jesus Christ made the final cut is terribly jarring to comprehend) to dilute the pain of his retelling; Greengrass’ reenactment is completely devoid of cinematic flourish.

United 93
, the first film ever to directly take on 9/11 upon its release last April, is almost too realistic to bear. It is expertly crafted though nearly unwatchable.

Alternatively World Trade Center is a sanitized effort by Oliver Stone, a contrived yet effective melodrama that trivializes the terrorist attacks in the name of human interest. It is also the easier to watch of the two films. Perhaps with the distance of time, the uncompromising wringer that is United 93 can be better appreciated once the wounds have healed (but will they ever?). In the meantime, I suppose there is still a need for communal solace that World Trade Center provides; it is an outlet to purge the pain of history before history itself can be confronted.
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For comments, e-mail me at lanz_ys@yahoo.com.

ANN COULTER BLOODY SUNDAY CINDY SHEEHAN GREENGRASS GROUND ZERO JESUS CHRIST LOS ANGELES TIMES LOWER MANHATTAN OLIVER STONE WORLD TRADE CENTER
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