The Magazine

Hollywood's Terror

The movies tip-toe up to the meaning of September 11.

Apr 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 31 • By GABY WENIG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

AT THE END of "Gangs of New York," Martin Scorsese inserts a montage of the city across time--from a decrepit nineteenth-century slum to the modern megalopolis of Manhattan. In the last shot, right before the credits roll, two buildings stand out: the twin towers of the World Trade Center. They stand out not just because they are taller than other buildings, but because their presence in the film was a somewhat audacious move, a year and a half after the towers had been erased from the New York skyline.

Scorsese had a cinematographic reason for leaving the towers in "Gangs of New York": He wanted them as symbols of the pain, fear, and terror that--the bulk of his film argued--has always typified New York. But what's more interesting than this somewhat tendentious proposition is the change that the presence of the World Trade Center in the film signaled. "Gangs of New York" was released just before Christmas, the same day that Spike Lee's "25th Hour" hit the cinemas. These films, together with Jim Simpson's "The Guys," which opened this week, mark a move away from the bowdlerization of film that came after the attacks of September 11--when filmmakers, unsure of how to represent a tragedy from which the country was still reeling, obliterated mention of it altogether.

Such films as "Spiderman" and "Serendipity," in production before the terrorist attacks, went back and carefully eliminated scenes of the World Trade Center. Movies about terrorism made before September 11--such as "Collateral Damage," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a firefighter who hunts down the terrorist who killed his wife and child, or "Big Trouble," a mad caper that features, among other things, a bomb being smuggled onto a plane--were put temporarily on the shelf.

For similar motives, movies that cast a cynical eye on America's foreign or military interests (such as "The Quiet American," which suggested that nefarious actions may be swathed in altruism, or "Buffalo Soldiers," about drug-running soldiers) were held back, for fear of appearing unpatriotic. At the same time, movies like "Black Hawk Down" (which was the number one movie for four weeks in January 2002) and "We Were Soldiers" (a number one movie in March), both of which featured brave American soldiers who were willing to fight for their country and their brothers in the military, seemed appropriate expressions from Hollywood--although, it's worth noticing, both of these were in planning before September 11, suggesting the film industry's turn to a more patriotic stance has been building for some time.

Still, feature filmmakers remained curiously reluctant to address the central events of September 11. Crudely put, the attacks on the World Trade Center are a filmmaker's dream: apocalyptic and fraught with tragedy, bravery, and melodrama. The movie industry has never been exactly shy about exploiting human suffering, and yet September 11 has remained the province of news cameramen and documentary makers, such as Jules and Gédéon Naudet, whose film "9/11" was an accident born out of another documentary they were filming about firefighters. (Even that film, which is generally regarded as the documentary about the attacks, shied away from footage of bodies on fire and people falling from the upper floors of the building.)

"THE GUYS" is the first feature film whose subject is solely September 11, but it is such a controlled and confined film that the enormity of the actual event is diminished from a tragedy of mass horror to a minor drama. Originally a two-character play performed at the fledgling Flea Theatre in New York, "The Guys" is the story of a writer named Joan (played by Sigourney Weaver) who is approached by a fire captain named Nick (Anthony LaPaglia) for help writing eulogies. He needs to give eight eulogies immediately for men lost in the towers, and possibly 350 more in the next few months. "You've got to understand," he tells Joan. "Over a bad year we lost maybe . . . six. This was in one day. One hour."

The horror of what occurred transcends Nick's capacity for language. Initially, he describes the first of his eulogy subjects as "A schmo. If Bill walked into a room, nobody would even notice," but with Joan's careful prodding, Nick is able to find his voice and name the qualities that define the humanity he seeks to recreate. As his inarticulateness dissolves, Joan helps Nick uncover the language that transforms these ordinary guys into heroes with enough human detail to make them real.