Sep 11, 2011

9/11 at 24 Frames per Second

United 93 by Paul Greengrass

I wrote this article for a Mexican magazine five years ago. The translation from Spanish is mine.

Five years after the 9/11 attacks, the media asks whether the American people are ready to watch films about the topic, if it’s not too soon to reopen the wounds caused by that terrible day. If five days after the debacle, there were already people on the streets of NY selling souvenirs about the catastrophe, five years later should not be such an issue. We all knew that when the smoke cleared, Hollywood would put its machinery to work. The question was how. Those of us who saw what happened that day with our own eyes, without the filter of TV screens, know that the eeriest thing was that to the naked eye it looked exactly like a disaster movie. Looking towards the World Trade Center you almost expected Godzilla to appear from behind and crunch everything underfoot. The attacks were spectacularly cinematic. When wondering how the movies can recreate this event in an authentic way, the question arises whether the 9/11 attacks themselves could have been possible without the influence of movies like Armaggedon or Independence Day. Paradoxically, the challenge for filmmakers is to tell this story in a realistic and credible way, so it doesn’t look like yet another run of the mill disaster movie.
Which is why perhaps, to date, there have been an infinite number of TV programs and documentaries on the subject, but only a handful of commercial movies. None of them has been a sure-fire commercial hit. One of the most notorious ones is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911, a documentary satire of the Bush administration.  As far as fictional recreations go, since there have been other attacks in Europe and elsewhere, and everybody now lives in mortal fear every time we go on vacation, people don’t exactly storm the box office to watch these films.
In my opinion, the best movie about the topic is Paul Greengrass’ United 93. It is a documentary-style recreation in real time about the fourth hijacked plane, which was apparently deviated by the passengers so it would not crash on the White House. It took me several weeks to find the courage to go see it. The real reason for my interest was Greengrass’ work at the time. Bloody Sunday, his movie about the Irish troubles, impressed me greatly. When I saw United 93 a few weeks after it opened, it had only made $30 million, a paltry sum compared to the box office of movies like Mission Impossible III or X-Men, which opened around the same time.
United 93, is in my view, the best disaster movie ever filmed. The mantra “it’s only a movie”, which one whispers in the dark to ward off heart pounding fear, serves no purpose in this film. United 93 is written and directed by Greengrass as a reverse paradigm of disaster movies. Dialog is pithy and direct, not heroic, not patriotic, symbolic or sentimental, but rather existential. There are no big speeches, or anything that sounds like words in a screenplay, only the urgent language used in situations of extreme crisis. The greatest virtue of this movie is that it is an existential drama, shot with unknown actors and real people. United 93 has no famous stars playing heroes. We completely identify with the passengers and those on the ground who try, unsuccesfully, to help: orphaned of artificial hopes, abandoned to the confrontation with the incomprehensible, without the consolation of a Harrison Ford ready to save the day. There are no satanic Arab villains either. The movie starts, quietly and shockingly, with the terrorists meticulously preparing themselves in their hotel. They shave, dress, eat, pack, pray in silence, which makes their next actions seem even more absurd: their humanity makes them truly sinister. The film also shows, without cheap political shots and in a hair-rising way, the ineptitude of the authorities in real time. In hindsight, one is flabbergasted at the incompetence of the government’s and the military response and at the incredulity of the authorities in charge that this could happen to the most powerful country on Earth. Greengrass understands that reality is much stranger than fiction. His realistic and rational style allow the passengers’ rebellion to be credible and logical, and hence truly heroic. 

Oliver Stone's World Trade Center
In contrast, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is an emotional story about two real policemen who were trapped underneath the rubble. Stone, who served in Vietnam, identifies deeply with Americans who have risked their lives for their fellow citizens. One of his obessions is the American people’s lack of awareness about those who sacrifice their lives for their country (Platoon, Born on the 4th of July, Salvador). World Trade Center is not a political movie and does not bother with the terrorists or the historical context; it glorifies the bravery of the policemen and firefighters who tried to rescue people in those buildings. This is a big surprise for those who expected an anti-government screed from Stone.
The movie starts with Nicolas Cage, and his partner, the excellent Michael Peña, getting up at dawn to go to work as Port Authority policemen. From the first two seconds, we know we are watching a Hollywood production. Everything is a cliché, including a transvestite prostitute who shuffles around 42nd Street, before 9 am, where such beings have become virtually extinct since the Disneyfication of the area. What is admirable and powerful in the film is the extraordinary recreation of the towers, both from inside and from outside. Using extraordinary digital effects, Stone reinvents reality prior to and during the attacks with chilling authenticity. He has the good taste not to recreate the actual crash of the planes and he never shows the towers falling, which one is grateful about, although he does show over and over the images on TV screens, which were replayed that day and beyond ad nauseam. The recreation of the disaster area and the consequences of the first impact is totally genuine (bits of paper flying, smoke, and those infernal ashes). To see the halls of the mall beneath the towers and the subway stations as they were before the attack is shocking. It is also extremely sad.
I can’t say I liked World Trade Center. But it did shake me emotionally. Even though the dialog seemed simplistic, cliched and unrelated to real life, I have to admit I cried rivers of tears.
World Trade Center is an homage to the heroism of the police and the firefighters, but that is the reason why it lacks bite. In contrast to United 93, in which the suspense is unbearable (even though we all know the ending), World Trade Center moves back and forth between the trapped heroes and their families above ground with great emotion but no dramatic tension. The focus on the personal makes it lack conviction and indignation.  The setting is recreated with great fidelity, but the characters feel made up, even if based on actual people. They sound like movie heroes. This is the trap that this event sets for those who want to retell it as fiction in moving images. It is hard to compete with reality.
The movie ends two years later with a happy ending, the heroes more or less recovering, their families grateful. The truth is that many people who survived the attacks have suffered from PTSD. A recent article in New York Magazine interviews several survivors and many of them felt alienated from their families, incapable of sharing their experiences, guilty about having survived and prone to panic attacks. The Village Voice told the story of three firefighters whose lives have been terribly affected by their work in the highly toxic rubble. Many rescuers now suffer from respiratory disease, cancer and other problems.
At the end of the movie, titles appear with the number of victims: 2792 civilians from 87 countries, 343 firefighters and 75 police officers. The film versions of  9/11 remind us that the world is not the same since then. Our reality is more unbelievable than any movie. What shocks is the innocence of terror in which we lived in the good old days.

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