The films of 9/11

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

Several Hollywood films have been made about the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001. However, in the nearly six years since that day, many Americans (myself included) have been reticent to rekindle the pain we all felt by reliving the stories on film.

It was with some trepidation that I sat down this past weekend and watched four of the films of 9/11, three on DVD and one (“United 93”) showing on HBO this month. It was far from an easy task, but I came away proud of America’s film industry, and impressed by the honesty and dignity with which each film was made.

It is not altogether a bad thing to be occasionally reminded of the great heroism that your fellow humans are capable of, as well as the great sorrow they can bear. So when you are ready to revisit that awful morning, here are some impressions you might want to consider. “The Great New Wonderful” (2005) takes place a year after the 9/11 attacks, and loosely strings together the separate stories of several New Yorkers who have one thing in common: They have yet to heal, emotionally, from that trauma.

The cast and the separate stories are quite wonderful, with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Olympia Dukakis, Edie Falco, Tony Shalob and a number of others balancing (some well, some not so well) that tightrope of anxiety we all felt at the time. The stories are subtle, the apprehension sometimes well hidden as they cross paths in a seemingly random manner.

Ms. Gyllenhaal plays an upscale wedding-cake expert dealing with the suicide of a friend. Jim Gaffigan is an office worker barely able to conceal his rage, while in several stunning mute scenes with Dukakis, we find hints about the calamity that has killed the love in her marriage. There are lighthearted moments in this film, too, and times when the basic humanity we all share is wordlessly communicated. It’s a very personal, very interesting film, and far from the beaten path.

I liked the film a lot, and had I seen it two years ago, it would have been on my list of the year’s best.

“World Trade Center” (2006) is Oliver Stone’s controlled yet impassioned take on the fall of the two great towers. Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena are outstanding in the true story of two Port Authority police officers who were trapped beneath the rubble. It is a tribute to the raw courage of our public servants, and to the tenacity with which they stick to their jobs.

It was eye-opening to compare “Flight 93” and “United 93,” both dramatized and based on what was subsequently learned about the hijacked United Airlines plane that went down in a Pennsylvania field after the passengers attacked the terrorists who had taken over control of the cockpit. “Flight” was directed by Peter Markle and premiered on the A&E network in January 2006.

TV staple Jeffrey Nordling was the only recognizable star in a well-crafted recreation, obviously based primarily on the real phone calls made by the passengers after the hijackers seized the plane in mid-air. It is tense and well-acted, with the focus remaining on what happened in the airplane itself.

“United 93,” on the other hand, shows far more of what went on in the flight towers and air-traffic-control centers in real-time, as all four planes were hijacked and met their separate fates. Again, there weren’t movie stars in the cast, with the exception of Christian (“Boston Legal”) Clemenson, and many of the supervisors and workers at the various ATCs played themselves.

There was far more emphasis on the lack of communication during this bizarre emergency, and the confusion over proper rules of engagement only added to the horror.

“United 93,” ably directed by action-oriented Paul Greengrass, pulls no punches and is a fine companion piece to his 2002 film “Bloody Sunday,” which I also highly recommend.

Watching these four films has served to remind me that, regardless of how I feel about our current administration, my fellow Americans are made of sterner stuff and I don’t have to glance nervously over my shoulder when I feel pride in country.

Meanwhile, Back at the Dixie:

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Didn’t like it on TV. Didn’t like the original movie in 1990. Didn’t see this one. Period.


Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The New Dominion. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.

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