Saturday, September 10, 2011

Yes, another 9/11 retrospective... but related to filmmaking

Cross-posted in Puente's Perspective

Almost ten years ago, I remember some people in the media talking about the September 11 attacks and speaking negatively about how some screenwriter in Hollywood was going to try and cash in on the spectacle of that tragedy and write a screenplay about it.

I don't think this observation was a fair one. Narrative films have been structured around traumatic historical events ever since the invention of the medium. Just as every other art form has been used to help individuals and entire societies process the grief associated with such events.

As I look back over the last decade, I can think of a number of films that have been produced related to 9/11 (some more directly than others) that were made–not with an eye toward exploitation–but as genuine artistic endeavors that have served to help us put that horrible day into perspective. Some did so by recreating the events of that day as in "United 93," and "World Trade Center." Others tried to help us understand the myriad factors that lead to the event and the cultural thinking behind it and our reponse–or failure to respond–like "Fahrenheit 9/11," and "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?"

Of the September 11 documentaries that were made that used footage and audio that was recorded on that day as well as personal stories related by the people who were there, I was moved the most by two films in particular: "9/11"–which was broadcast by CBS on the night before the 6 month anniversary of the tragedy–and "Rebirth" which follows the lives of several people who were directly affected by the events at the World Trade Center in a series of interviews conducted over several years following the event and documenting their personal growth and stories as they came to terms with their losses.

But the 9/11 themed films that have affected me the most have been those that have told fictional stories set within the context of 9/11–either with the events occurring concurrently with the story or showing the way that they affected the ongoing lives of the characters.

The first of these that I saw was, of all things, a Disney Channel Movie starring Hayden Panattiere and Bill Pullman called "Tiger Cruise." At first I avoided watching it. Not because of the 9/11 references–which I wasn't even aware of at the time–but because I'm a Navy veteran and I wasn't interested in watching what I thought could have been a Disney sponsored recruitment ad. Eventually, I relented though and I was glad I did. That's when I learned about the 9/11 references and I really liked how they were made, from the perspective of both active-duty military and their families.

"Reign Over Me"–a rare and welcome example of an Adam Sandler flick that is nothing like your standard Adam Sandler flick–tells the story of a widower who lost his family when they were flying aboard one of the highjacked airliners. An incredible representation of the tragedy affecting an individual and how his friends are in turn affected by him.

In Tamara Jenkins' film "The Savages" with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, a direct 9/11 reference did not come until well into the film as the story is primarily about two adult siblings dealing with the special needs of their elderly father but I remember being hooked by the story with a reference to the now defunct Homeland Security Advisory System when Linney's character calls Hoffman's on the phone in the middle of an emotional crisis. His response is to ask her to gauge the severity of her crisis using the color-codes associated with the terror alert system. This was an excellent example of how a decidedly political response to earth shattering events can influence a culture.

The sociopolitical repercussions of 9/11 also inspired some interesting storytelling set in Iraq and Afghanistan, not just during our military engagements there–as depicted in films like "Green Zone" and "The Hurt Locker"–but stories that took place in those countries many years prior to 9/11 such as "Charlie Wilson's War." I wonder if a film like "The Kite Runner" would ever have been made were it not for U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Would westerners have ever been aware, let alone cared, about the struggles faced by the Afghan people when the two major powers vying for control of the country were two opposite authoritarian extremes: atheistic communists and the religiously fanatical Taliban (who had an ostensibly religious objection to–of all things–kite flying).

The effects of U.S. military action in response to 9/11 on the home front was also explored. "The Lucky Ones" was a poignant look at military culture and the effects war has on comrades in arms and their families. The effects of PTSD on returning soldiers was dramatized in the fact-based film "In the Valley of Elah" starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon and a number of actual Iraq War veterans. The conflicted emotions of a Marine who took advantage of the opportunity not to fight and remain stationed safely in the States with his family was addressed in "Taking Chance" with Kevin Bacon, also based on a true story.

One of the most intense fictional films in any of these genres that I enjoyed very much is "Buried" with Ryan Reynolds. The story of an American contractor working in Iraq who is kidnapped for ransom. It's hard to believe that one can be so affected by a film that keeps it's audience in a box with the main character for 94 minutes without so much as a flashback to stretch one's legs. The phone call he receives from his employers while trapped in that shallow grave is especially aggravating to brilliant dramatic effect. This is the closest that any of these films has come to being a suspense story but its subject matter is addressed in a way that is not at all inappropriate or disrespectful.

There were less effective stories told that tried to address these same events and issues. "Stop Loss" and "Remember Me" come to mind. "Day Zero" addressed the fears of what could happen in a world where seemingly endless war leads to a reinstatement of conscripted service in the U.S. military.

It will be interesting to see what kinds of stories related to all of these subjects will be told in the second decade following 9/11. I'm sure a search through the Internet Movie Database will show several in various stages of production.

One exercise that I undertook in researching this article utilized an interesting feature of the IMDb. The sort of film and actor-related information that can be filtered through the use of specific dates can be enlightening. One can learn what films premiered and where. I learned that I share a birthday with a number of different actors–Jerry O'Connell and I are exactly the same age; born on the same day in the same year. One can also find out the dates on which specific actors died. While most might look up a famous name like Cary Grant or Ingrid Bergman to learn when and where they passed away; another feature on the IMDb is the ability to input a specific date and find out who–among those individuals listen in the IMDb–was born and who died on that day.

I typed in September 11, 2001.

The attacks happened on the birthdays of several well known actors and performing artists including Virginia Madsen, Harry Connick Jr., Moby and Roxann Dawson–an actor and director well known in the Star Trek franchise. Speaking of Star Trek, a person by the name of Jeffrey Coombs was onboard American Airlines Flight 11 which crashed into the World Trade Center. Many people thought that it was Jeffrey Combs (with only one "o"), another Star Trek veteran, who had died. Mr. Combs addressed the public through the official Star Trek web site to clarify that he had not died and to share his feelings surrounding the event.

Of course, I had to see if anyone on the IMDb had died on September 11, 2001. As of this writing, 31 individuals are listed in the IMDb as having died that day. 27 of those names are listed as having died in New York, New York; Shanksville, Pennsylvania or Arlington, Virginia. Most of those have the September 11 attacks listed in their bios or are directly attributed as their cause of death–described as "Homicide," "Victim of" or "Perished in."

One can only infer from the date and locations whether or not the others who died on that day were victims of the attacks.

A dozen or so of the names listed were placed on the IMDb posthumously, credited as appearing in documentaries in "archive footage"–most likely home movies–or simply had their names included in a dedication in the closing credits. These individuals were not in the film or television industries though one is said to have appeared as an audience member on "The Tonight Show." Another as a reality show contestant.

One individual who died was a regular guest on "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher." Maher left one of his panel chairs empty for a week in honor of this person.

Of the victims who were involved in the film industry, there was a composer by the name of Gerard 'Rod' Coppola. I read nothing to indicate whether or not he was related to Francis Ford Coppola. A staff writer for "Cheers," "Wings" and "Frasier" died with his wife on one of the hijacked aircraft. A camera operator who is listed as having died on 9/11/01 also has a credit for a 2003 production–perhaps that project was shelved for a couple of years.

A few names stood out to me. Chuck Margiotta was once a stunt man. It makes a certain sense that someone in that line of work might transition from film stunts to being a firefighter.

Charles McCrann was a senior vice-president of a financial-services conglomerate with offices at the World Trade Center. He was also a film buff who wrote, produced, directed, edited and acted in a horror movie called "Bloodeaters."

Of the people with film industry credits who died on September 11, very few of them were well known in the film industry, or even within their specific fields. Indeed, many of them had no more than one or two credits on their IMDb profiles. They had participated in maybe a short, a television show or independent feature in minor roles either in front of or behind the camera and then moved on with their lives. Lives that eventually lead to jobs at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or just as passengers on those ill-fated flights.

I couldn't help but wonder as I read those names and their modest resumes if these people ever talked about their experiences on those film sets. Did a conversation about favorite films start up in the break room or at lunch that prompted them to say, "Yeah, I worked on a movie once." What was the reaction of their coworkers to these revelations? Were they fascinated? Did they respond with questions like, "Did you meet anyone famous?" How long did that little spark of recognition and perhaps pride last before they had to get back to their jobs? If they had time to reflect on their lives before they died, did any of their thoughts turn to their time on a film set? Did they once consider choosing a career in that industry before moving on to something they might have thought would be a little more financially secure? A little more safe?