9/11 at the Cineplex
As we approach the five-year anniversary of the cataclysmic day in which so much in the world changed, we are reminded that one thing has stayed the same: Hollywood still likes a good story.
With the recent release of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, and April's quiet release of United 93, the first entries (not counting several very good documentaries) in the 9/11-set films have arrived. And though some have cried foul that it's too soon, others have proclaimed the timing of the films entirely appropriate and even essential given the current state of the world.
What people forget is that World Trade Center, United 93, and even A&E's Flight 93—while certainly the most explicitly about 9/11—are not the first to have come out on the subject. Several films in the last five years have referenced or been inspired by that day, and cinema as a whole has been markedly changed.
One of the most interesting—and overlooked—9/11-influenced films before the recent movies was Spike Lee's 25th Hour, which hit theaters in the winter of 2002-03. The film, ostensibly about one man (Edward Norton) living out his last night in Lower Manhattan before going to prison, was seen by many as a powerful metaphor for post-9/11 New York City.
From the opening credits shot against the two towers of blue light that memorialized the twin towers to the numerous conversations about uncertain futures held in front of windows overlooking the ghostly abyss of ground zero, 25th Hour was suffused with an elegiac mood of a dazed city still in shock.
Critics responded favorably to the film and its portrayal of the post-9/11 world. "Lee takes the spiritual moment and crystallizes it into art," wrote Mike LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, "getting that post-Sept. 11 feeling into his movie's molecular structure." Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post also praised the film's timeliness: "Lee has created that rarity in filmmaking: a movie we need, right now."
25th Hour came on the heels of another film about New York released in late 2002, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. This film, originally scheduled for release in September 2001, was delayed until Christmas 2002 because of its "violence in New York" subject matter. When it did come out in theaters, Gangs was mostly critically acclaimed, despite a few complaints that its extreme violence was in poor taste.
William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was one critic who responded negatively: "As much as any movie of the past year, this one suffers from 9/11. Its ad campaign ("America was born on the Streets!") and dreamy shots of the New York skyline ask us to see something upliftingly American in its story. But its cynicism, corruption and images of exploitation all play like ammo for Osama."
Others appreciated the film for its statement about the cyclical nature of violence. Only in the last few moments of the film, as the camera looks back on the NYC skyline burning in the 1863 draft riots and then morphs into the just-before 9/11 skyline—twin towers featured prominently—does Scorsese's point come full circle: violence begets violence.
Interestingly, Steven Spielberg's 2005 film Munich, with similar themes of reprisal violence, also contained a final shot of the pre-9/11 New York skyline, with the World Trade Center faintly in the distance. Obviously the twin towers have a new iconic symbolism, and any film that makes a point of capturing them certainly has more in mind than mere background.