Crash Barrier: Film-Makers Were Slow to Address 9/11. Were They Outdone by the Terrorists?

By Gilbey, Ryan | New Statesman (1996), May 29, 2006 | Go to article overview

Crash Barrier: Film-Makers Were Slow to Address 9/11. Were They Outdone by the Terrorists?


Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)


A common response to television coverage of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center was that it looked like a film. Conversely, the most striking thing about United 93, the first fictionalised feature to be made about the events of 11 September 2001, is that it bears little resemblance to a conventional motion picture.

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Hand-held cameras, unknown actors, action played out in real time--this is not what films are usually like. But the British writer-director Paul Greengrass, who pieces together events culminating in the crashing of the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field, faced an unusual challenge in shaping his film: how to repackage, as cinema, events that were inherently cinematic to begin with, and which have been repeated endlessly in our imaginations. The 9/11 attacks were an orchestrated spectacle that relied for its impact on epic imagery and an audience of billions. No filmmaker can compete with that.

By concentrating on the flight that was given least media coverage, Greengrass avoids recreating the events most clearly imprinted on our memories. Oliver Stone faces more of a problem with his forthcoming 9/11 film, World Trade Center. Naturally, many believe that the most fitting tribute the bombastic Stone could pay to the victims of the attack would be to leave the subject well alone. Yet even Stone's supporters must see the difficulty inherent in attempting to recreate the sheer visual impact of the atrocities.

Perhaps this difficulty, as much as public sensitivity about the issue, is the reason why cinema has been relatively slow to respond to 9/11. Novelists have been much quicker off the mark, with writers including Neil LaBute, Jay McInerney and Jonathan Safran Foer examining the attacks in their work. There have been two portmanteau films--11'09"01 and the documentary Underground Zero--both of varying quality. Television has got in on the act with documentaries such as Discovery Channel's The Flight That Fought Back (2005). Narrative cinema, in contrast, has addressed that day only through echoes and allusions.

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Films that have been touched unintentionally by the shadow of 9/11 have found themselves dwarfed by its resonances. The likeable coming-of-age comedy Raising Victor Vargas acquired a strangely downbeat aftertaste when it emerged that it was the first picture shot in New York after the attacks. And it was impossible not to play spot-the-twin-towers with any film made there before 9/11, the most melancholy example being Steven Spielberg's AI: artificial intelligence, which opened in Britain just weeks after the attacks. …

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