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September 11 at the Movies

United 93

a film directed by Paul Greengrass

World Trade Center

a film directed by Oliver Stone

1.

At a quarter to nine on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was driving down the West Side Highway in Manhattan in a car filled with scholarly texts about Greek tragedy. It was a Tuesday, and the first session of the seminar I used to teach each fall at Princeton, “Self and Society in Classical Greek Drama,” was scheduled to meet on Thursday. Because I’d recently been given a big new office, I had decided to move all of my classics texts from my apartment in New York down to Princeton; which is why, at around eight that morning, I could be found in front of my building on the Upper West Side, loading boxes of books with titles like Tragedy and Enlightenment and The Greeks and the Irrational into a friend’s car. After I’d finished, I got in the car and headed south to ward lower Manhattan, where the friend who was going to accompany me to New Jersey lived.

My friend and I had agreed to meet at her place at nine, but traffic on the highway was surprisingly light and I reached her neighborhood early. I picked up my cell phone—the display on its exterior said 8:45—to warn her that I was going to arrive momentarily. “Don’t be mad,” I said, “but I made good time.” I flipped the phone shut, looked up, and a dark flash of something darted into the building that loomed directly before me, which was the north tower of the World Trade Center. A gigantic ball of bright orange fire ballooned out of the tower, followed by vast plumes of dense, black smoke.

Today, when I tell people this story, I say it was like Vesuvius; there was, indeed, something volcanic about the quality of fire and smoke pouring out of the huge black gash in the building’s side, which directly faced those of us who were looking at it from the north. But at the time, the first, irrational thought that came into my staggered mind was that someone was making a blockbuster disaster movie. What I thought, in fact, was this: In this day and age, with its sophisticated digital special effects, why would anyone use real planes?

After a stupefied moment, in which the realness of the accident (as I then thought it must be) became apparent, I swerved my car onto a side street, where already clusters of people had stopped to stare and cry out in awed horror. Shaking, I reached for my cell phone and hit redial. “What’s up?” Renée asked. “Turn on the TV, turn on the TV,” I said, a little hysterically. “The World Trade Center blew up.” But of course there was nothing to see on the TV yet. The amazing thing had just taken place; there was no coverage yet, no media, no commentary, no evaluation, no interpretation. It was just the raw event. What had just happened had not yet become the story of what happened.

By coincidence, the way in which what happens becomes the story of what happens—another way of putting this is to say, the way in which history becomes drama—had been much on my mind earlier that morning, because the play I was going to be teaching on Thursday that week was a work I typically teach when introducing students to the subject of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus’ Persians. First produced in the spring of 472 BC, Persians is noteworthy in the corpus of the thirty-two extant Greek tragedies in that it is the only classical Greek drama that dramatizes an actual historical event. That event was the improbable and glorious defeat, by a relatively tiny force of Greek citizen-soldiers, of the immense expeditionary force sent by the Persian monarch Xerxes to conquer Greece: the first global geopolitical conflict between East and West that the world would see.

This remarkable event had taken place a scant eight years before Aeschylus’ drama was staged, and it is tempting to wonder just what the Athenian audience was expecting, that spring day, as they walked in the pre-dawn light to the theater of Dionysus. The treatment of historical material on the tragic stage had, after all, brought disaster to playwrights in the past. In 494 BC—in an incident that marked the beginning of the conflict between Europe and Asia whose ending, triumphant for the West, is celebrated in Persians—the culturally Greek city of Miletus, on the Asia Minor coast, was brutally occupied by the Persian emperor Darius. Two years later this disaster, awful for the Greeks, was dramatized on the tragic stage in a play called The Capture of Miletus, by a playwright called Phrynichus. It quickly became evident that it was still too soon to turn history into drama, as Herodotus’ account of that ill-starred production suggests:

The Athenians made clear their deep grief for the taking of Miletus in many ways, but especially in this: when Phrynichus wrote a play entitled “The Capture of Miletus” and produced it, the whole theater fell to weeping; they fined Phrynichus a thousand drachmas for bringing to mind a calamity that affected them so personally, and forbade the performance of that play forever.

We know next to nothing about Phrynichus’ play—the ban on the work was, alas, all too effective—but the historian’s description is suggestive. It would appear that Athenians were responding so strongly not so much to the drama itself (to the story of what happened) as to the memories of the real event (which is to say, to what happened). Their reaction, in other words, was not an aesthetic response. The emotions produced by the event itself—sorrow over the death and enslavement of fellow Greeks—seem, in this case, to have taken the place of the emotions—the catharsis that seeks to cleanse the mind, let’s say—which drama seeks to elicit. You wonder, indeed, whether the Athenians’ ban on The Capture of Miletus was necessary: the feelings aroused by Phrynichus’ work were tied so specifically to the incident it depicted that, twenty years later, no one would likely have been moved by it all that much.

Twenty years later, Aeschylus was in the happier position of dramatizing a historical event that had turned out triumphantly for the Greeks. It’s hard not to think that at least some Athenians, that long-ago day, gloated a bit as they watched Persians. Set in the imperial capital of Susa, the drama focuses on the grief of the Persian court as it awaits the return of its defeated emperor, Xerxes, following the Greek victory at Salamis. It must be said that to the eyes of anyone who didn’t have the personal pleasure of defeating Xerxes’ overweening invasion, the pageant of humiliation often feels rather too much like a pageant to be what we think of as great drama. The play consists of a series of fairly static tableaux in which, one after another, anxious courtiers and royals—among them, Xerxes’ mother and the ghost of his father, Darius (who, we are meant to understand, was a less foolhardy, sager autocrat)—express their fears about the fate of the Persian army. These tableaux culminate in the appearance of the ill-starred emperor himself, dust-covered, despairing, defeated. (Rather startlingly, we’re told that the fact that he’s led his nation to ignominy will not affect him personally; he is, after all, the king.)

Before September 11, I liked to put Persians first on the syllabus of my tragedy seminar because this somewhat clanking play, with its stodgily predictable lessons about a bloated empire unexpectedly humbled by a tiny but fervent foe, seemed the best-available vehicle to show students that not all tragedies were structurally perfect; that not all tragedies were great, or—in the way we expect the greatest works of art to be—relevant.

2.

Five years after that morning in 2001, I am once again put in mind of Aeschylus and Phrynichus, now that the first major Hollywood entertainments about the events of September 11 have appeared in theaters: Paul Greengrass’s United 93, whose subject is the hijacking of the flight in which the passengers rebelled against their al-Qaeda tormentors (with the result that the plane crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania and not, as is thought to have been the terrorists’ plan, into the Capitol); and the rather more conventional World Trade Center, directed by Oliver Stone, which treats the stories of two Port Authority police officers who were trapped in the rubble that day and eventually rescued. Both films, in different ways, raise interesting questions about the complicated relationship between history and art, fiction and—an increasingly vexed word, these days—“reality.”

Reality, after all, was an obsessive concern of the makers of both movies. Both works are characterized by a severe sobriety of tone, as if to acknowledge that these are no mere entertainments; we are told that the families of victims (and, in the case of World Trade Center, the survivors themselves) were constantly consulted during the making of both films. Indeed, in the case of United 93, there is no apparent “dramatization” at all: as far as the audience knows, the film, which often has the flatly passive, affectless feel of home movies, simply, and with apparent scrupulousness, reproduces what we know of the sequence of events that day. Apart from a brief prologue sequence showing the hijackers apparently preparing themselves for the attack by praying in their motel room (that they said their prayers is, you suppose, a reasonable enough inference), most of the action takes place first in the airport—the humdrum, bored preparations for boarding and departure are nicely captured—and then in the airliner itself, before and during the violence.

The representation of the hijacking and of what we know to have followed—the murder of the pilots, the frantic, furtive cell phone calls by passengers to loved ones, the decision to fight back, the brief, horrific struggle for control of the plane ending in its plummeting into the field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania—occur in “real” time. (After the crash, as if in homage to the fact that real people perished in the calamity being portrayed, the screen simply goes black, as if to say that there can be no dramatic “ending” here, no authorial editorializing.) In that real time, there is some degree of cross-cutting between what’s taking place in the air and the confusion on the ground, particularly in the air traffic control centers, where a horrified realization of the nature of the day’s events gradually dawns—and a frustrating inability to get the United States government to react intelligently is soon felt.

As if to underscore this almost documentary approach, the director chose to have members of the air crews depicted in the film played by real pilots and stewardesses; and certain other characters, including some of the air traffic controllers and air traffic control officials who were on duty that day, played themselves. Much was made of this remarkable gesture in the admiring press at the time. Furthermore, the director avoided using well-known actors; the faces you see on screen could be anyone’s faces. The kinds of faces you see, without really seeing them, in airports.

Overall, this approach to his material was thought to be an appropriate one. “As far as possible, the movie plays it straight,” the enthusiastic critic in The New Yorker wrote.1 “As far as possible” covers some noteworthy exceptions, naturally; there was not, presumably, a throbbing soundtrack playing before and during the real-life hijacking, as there is in the film.

The presence of a good deal of material that is not, strictly speaking, “authentic”—that soundtrack, marking moments of high drama; the inevitable approximation of what was said, what people did, things that can never, really, be known—raises the question of just what kind of film this is, and what it thinks it’s doing.

Audiences and critics were so swept up in the ostensibly reverent gesture of using “real” people in the cinematic recreation of the events of that day, for instance, that nobody bothered to wonder what purpose, precisely, using those people in a film was meant to serve. Apart from the relatively few people who knew them, no one watching the movie could possibly know or care what, say, this or that air traffic controller looked like or sounded like; artistically or dramatically speaking, there is no difference whatever if the person saying “There’s nothing on the screen” in the movie is the person who actually said it or a well-trained actor doing a reliable imitation of a functionary in a technical job. (Except that the actor will probably seem less stiff and unrealistic.)

Using the real-life people in the movie is a showy but ultimately hollow gesture; it advertises a certain kind of solemnity, even piety, about “authenticity” that has great currency in an era in which, in so many popular entertainments, a great premium is placed on getting as close as possible to “reality”—although in such entertainments the reality, of course, is an artfully constructed one. (An apparently growing confusion in mass culture about the differences among reality, truth, “truthiness,” and fiction has, as we know, had effects beyond the world of entertainment. An artful admixing of reality and invention, never acknowledged as such, has characterized the government’s attempt to “sell” its response to the events of September 11.)

There can, therefore, be no useful aesthetic value in the decision to use real people, only a symbolic and perhaps sentimental one: by emphasizing such authenticity and realism, the film reassures its audience—which may well be anxious about its motives for paying to see a film about real-life violence and horror—that what they’re seeing is not, in fact, “drama” (and therefore presumably mere “entertainment”), but “real life,” and hence in some way edifying.

The problem with all this realness is that the film itself—like reality—has no structure: and without structure, without shaping, the events can have no large meaning. When United 93 first came out, I was struck by one enthusiastic critic’s glowing comment, in a review entitled “Brilliant, Brutal and Utterly Real,” that Greengrass’s movie was “gripping from first to last, partly because, like a Greek tragedy, we are only too aware of where everything is heading….”2 But what makes Greek tragedy significant as art is precisely the way in which the foreordained trajectory of the events that take place on stage is made to seem part of a larger moral scheme; when (for instance) we see the horrible spectacle of the humbled king at the end of Persians, we know why he has been humbled (his greedy overreaching) and who has humbled him (the gods, the moral order that obtains in the cosmos).

All that United 93 can tell us, by contrast, is that many people are brave and some people are dastardly. (Well, many American people are brave: we’re treated to a scene in which one of the passengers, who has a Central European accent of some kind, urges the others to cooperate with the hijackers.) If United 93 brings to mind any genre, it’s not Greek tragedy, with its artfully wrought moral conundrums, but something much tinier: the innumerable made-for-television programs available on cable TV that are dedicated to reenactments of real-life crimes, complete with phony “realism.” The stylistic hallmark of these shows is the same jittery hand-held camerawork that Greengrass uses to represent the violence in the cabin of Flight 93.

This isn’t to say that the emotions evoked by United 93 aren’t strong. But your feelings of horror while watching the hand-to-hand violence in United 93 don’t derive from the way in which the action has been treated by the writer and the director, but rather from the prior historical knowledge you already bring to the occasion—it’s only awful to watch because you know something like it happened to real people. If United 93 were a fictional TV movie of the week, you might watch it with friends, and then go out for pizza without thinking about it ever again, except perhaps to wonder why there was no real ending, or why you never really knew anything about the characters (and hence wondered why they act the way they do). As I left the theater after seeing it, it occurred to me that what I was feeling—the sorrow for the real people of whom the show’s characters reminded me—was probably very much like what the audience felt as they left the first, and only, performance of The Capture of Miletus.

3.

Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centerhas a similarly hobbled feel. As with United 93, you sense, as you’re watching it, that the film is wearing blinders; that it isn’t looking, or can’t look, at what we all know now to have been a very big picture.

This isn’t the kind of movie you expect from Stone, who has a penchant for the epic, even the operatic, and who, in films like Born on the Fourth of July and JFK and Nixon, has enjoyed riling audiences with interpretations of recent political history that smack of a certain paranoia of the kind often associated with liberal cranks. (JFK strongly hints that Lyndon Johnson was in on the plot to kill Kennedy, along with a band of rich, cross-dressing gay men in New Orleans.) Accordingly, before the movie’s release, there was a general expectation that World Trade Center would be a grand treatment of that epic day.

These expectations were not in any way disappointed by the preview that ran in theaters across the country in the weeks leading up to the film’s release (a respectful one month’s distance from the fifth anniversary of September 11). In that preview, images floated across the screen with ominous, almost mythic grace—montages of ordinary people beginning their day, the shadow of a plane flying bizarrely low overhead, millions of sheets of paper fluttering to the ground—suggesting the great and terrible arc of events that morning. The first time I saw the preview, I burst into tears, because it brought it all back. I was afraid to see the movie when it came out.

But what you saw, finally, was something very small—something that was, once again, more like television than like cinema. World Trade Center is, indeed, a misleading title: after an opening sequence that does, very beautifully, bring back the sense of ordinary life, spread across classes and boroughs, that was soon to be brutalized—and for that reason seduces you into thinking it’s going to be about many people on that day of many deaths—the movie shrinks into the kind of narrative you associate with prime-time TV. Once again, it’s as if the aura of sanctification around the event—“you cannot cheapen this material with drama”—seems to have cowed people. The only story that World Trade Center dares to tell is the tale of two Port Authority policemen who were trapped in the rubble of a collapsing building and who, after keeping themselves and each other alive by trading stories through a hellish day and night, are rescued by courageous Marines and firefighters.

This true story is a moving one, and the representation of the anxiety of the officers’ families, driven to distraction by conflicting reports about the two men’s probable fates, makes for effective drama. But after that big opening sequence, the sudden and disorienting shift in focus feels odd; the movie very quickly acquires the predictable feel of an episode of ER. The exception is some scenes about David Karnes, a square-jawed Marine veteran living in Connecticut who, on watching the news that day, puts on his uniform and heads to ground zero, where he will be the one to find the two trapped policemen. Only here does the focus open out at all to suggest the larger world. “We’re gonna need some good men out there to avenge this,” he says, ramrod-straight in his carefully pressed Marine fatigues, as he surveys the wreckage; for once, you are reminded that what happened that day was part of a series of globally significant events, and would lead to many more.

To my mind, that scene—with its gung-ho rhetoric straight out of a Marine Corps advertisement—gives the lie to Stone’s repeated protestations that, as he put it in an interview for a piece in The New York Times, “This is not a political film. The mantra is ‘This is not a political film.’”3 It—and, in its way, United 93—is a political film; it’s merely that the politics of these works lurk under a sentimentality so overpowering that it seems perverse, even hardhearted, to take issue with them. It’s surely not accidental that the first two major pieces of popular entertainment to appear that have taken the events of September 11 as their subject have chosen to concentrate exclusively on events of that day that are, strictly speaking, highly unrepresentative of what happened that day: the heroic and nearly successful passenger revolt (because only those passengers understood the real nature of the crime that was underway), the successful rescue of two cops. A title card at the end of Stone’s film declares that a total of twenty people were pulled from the rubble; but as we know, thousands more perished.

There’s no question that that day was also a story of heroism and bravery; but the fact that people were forced to be so heroic that day was the result of a vast and complicated network of political, social, and historical forces which, five years later, it is irresponsible not to want to acknowledge. The pretty much exclusive emphasis thus far on the “good”—the heroism and the bravery of ordinary Americans—in these entertainments is noteworthy, because it reminds you of the unwillingness to grapple with and acknowledge the larger issues, the larger causes and effects that culminated in what happened on September 11, which has characterized much of the national response to this pivotal trauma. That both films, like so much we have seen on various screens over the past five years, clothe their fictions and their editorializing in the pious garment of reverence for authentic reality—a pose that will elicit tears, if not serious thinking—should be cause for alarm rather than applause.

4.

You could write a real tragedy, a Greek tragedy, about September 11 and what it has led to—a story with a true Aristotelian arc, a drama with a beginning that leads organically to a middle that leads organically, reasonably, to its inexorable end. This tragedy could, for instance, be about the seemingly inevitable way in which even the greatest empires can be thrown into confusion by a small number of enemies whose ideological fervor makes them unafraid of death. Or it could be about a specific empire, one whose contemptuous refusal to take its enemies seriously has made it deeply vulnerable. Or it could say something about a foolish and unseasoned autocrat whose desire to outshine his more accomplished father has an unfortunate effect on his policymaking, with the result that he ends up seeming even more foolish and unseasoned in comparison to his father. Or it could be about the seemingly irreducible strangeness of the West to the East, and vice versa. Or it could even be a kind of black farce (a genre not strange to Greek tragedy) about the injustices of autocracy—about a ruler so inept that he brings his country to ruin and yet never suffers, personally, for his errors. You could write such a tragedy today and to some people, at least, it might have a larger meaning. But then, someone has already written such a play; it’s called Persians.

It was on the Thursday after September 11 that Persians first started making sense to me. All those years I’d been teaching it, I’d failed to notice the most obviously remarkable thing about it—the device that transmutes the raw and chaotic stuff of lived history into something bigger, something with a universal resonance. As I have said, the play was produced a mere eight years after the Greeks’ fabulous and unexpected victory over their immense foe. How much more striking, then, that Aeschylus—who, it’s perhaps necessary to point out, fought in the Persian Wars, and lost a brother in the aftermath of the great naval triumph at Salamis, a description of which, put in the mouth of an impressed Persian, furnishes his play with its glittering rhetorical climax—should have chosen to focus his imaginative sympathy not on the exulting Greeks, but on the sorrowing Persians. Which is to say that in the very moment of their greatest victory, he asked his fellow Athenians to think radically, to imagine something outside of their own experience, to situate the feelings they were having just then—about themselves, about those others—in a vaster frame: one in which they might see that present triumph could induce a complacency that just might bring about future disaster. The sense of these larger, moral themes hovering over the play’s spectacle is, in the end, what gives the play a resonance that transcends the particulars of the history it purports to represent. No wonder the Athenians, for whom tragedy was a form of political dialogue as well as popular entertainment, gave it the prize that year.

Lucky Athenians. There’s a point in World Trade Center when the square-jawed Marine, who apart from being an all-American patriot is clearly deeply religious, too—one of our first glimpses of this hitherto unexplained character is of him sitting in a church pew, staring fervently at an enormous crucifix—arrives at the disaster zone and, peering through the ghostly smoke and soot, says to another would-be rescuer, “It’s like God made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what we’re not yet ready to see.” However much they seek to illumine the events of September 11, the films of Greengrass and Stone are, in the end, more like curtains than windows. For the present, at least, we still can’t bring ourselves to look.

Letters

Death at Marathon October 19, 2006

  1. 1

    See David Denby, “Last Impressions,” The New Yorker, May 1, 2006.

  2. 2

    Philip French in the London Observer, June 4, 2006.

  3. 3

    See David Halbfinger, “Searching for Truth in the Rubble,” The New York Times, July 2, 2006.

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