Ten years later, is it still too soon? A handful of films have addressed the events of September 11, 2001, from various angles, but none have attained true landmark status, culturally or cinematically. There is no work yet that might be called 'The 9/11 Story.' For an industry that didn't even wait until our previous president was out of office before depicting his life on-screen, that seems like an awful long time to wait before taking up the most widely documented incident in history, probably the most important event of the last generation.
A few possible explanations stand out. First, audiences have shown no inclination to reward 9/11-themed films at the box office, so studios are naturally less inclined to produce them. Second, Hollywood still seems a bit leery of tackling a topic so extraordinarily sensitive both politically and emotionally. And third, perhaps most importantly, there isn't a simple story to tell. If there's one thing movies prefer (both filmmakers and audiences, that is), it's a tale with a beginning, a middle and an end -- and as of now, there really is no end to 'The 9/11 Story.'
(Note: This article will stick to commercial film. A full recounting of 'The 9/11 Story' has, in some ways, already been done -- just not by Hollywood. The National Geographic Channel's 'Inside 9/11' is a clinical, documentary-style breakdown of the events leading up to that day, the day itself and the aftermath. It's as comprehensive as you could want. It might be the case that, to date, that is the best way to tell 'The 9/11 Story,' for it doesn't suffer from the financial, political or artistic problems we will discuss below. And if 'Inside 9/11' isn't enough, you can always read 'The 9/11 Commission Report,' our government's official take on what happened.)
When Paul Greengrass's 'United 93' and Oliver Stone's 'World Trade Center' were released in 2006, it seemed likely that they were simply the first of many cinematic efforts to address the events of 9/11. But now, five years later, and 10 years since the attacks, those two films remain the only films to directly depict the events of that day. Despite critical acclaim for 'United 93' -- Greengrass received a Best Director Oscar nomination, and the film received a good deal of additional award recognition -- and a sigh of relief that Stone, known for outright political messaging in his films, delivered an emotionally resonant, apolitical take on the first responders at the site of the Twin Towers, the films barely managed to break $100 million combined at the box office. That's not peanuts, but it doesn't indicate an audience thirsting for more, either.
Making a comprehensive, "definitive" 9/11 movie would probably require quite a hefty budget. Pricey special effects would be needed to recreate the New York skyline and the hijacked jetliners that attacked it. The cast and locations would also be extensive, with action taking place at least in New York, Washington, eastern Pennsylvania and various settings in the Middle East that might show both al-Qaida's pre-attack planning and the American military reaction in Afghanistan (and, likely, Iraq). The attack attracted the attention of the entire world, something filmmakers would need to include to properly show the full scope of what happened. And on top of that, any studio gutsy enough to go ahead with such a production would need to hire top-line talent both in front of and behind the camera -- no small line on the ledger.
An all-encompassing telling of 'The 9/11 Story' is clearly going to cost lots of money, and with no historical evidence yet that audiences would want to see such a thing, it's no small wonder that no one's done it yet. It's called "show business" after all -- if there's no business, there's no show.
Let's tackle the second reason now. While the film industry is generally seen as reliably liberal -- conservative politicians have raised lots of money denouncing "Hollyweird" -- the monumentally complex and lengthy series of events leading up to Sept. 11 and its aftereffects are difficult enough to cram into a two-hour film, without the additional worries of all your hard work getting dismissed as simple partisan hackery or, worse, a deliberate political slanting of a national tragedy.
That said, there are ways to preempt such criticisms. Plenty of conservative directors are capable of storytelling on this scale. Clint Eastwood comes to mind, especially after his dual tales of World War II, 'Flags of Our Fathers' and 'Letters From Iwo Jima.' Hiring someone like him would immediately defuse any attempt to brand the film a product of Hollywood's liberal activism. (That isn't to say the complaint wouldn't still be made; it likely would no matter who made the film.)
Ideally, though, 'The 9/11 Story' would be above such typical political disputes. Rather, it would be about a horrific event and how we, as a nation, responded. But really, could the political edges be smoothed over? Should they be? 'The 9/11 Story,' in order to truly be comprehensive, would need to take time to set up the terrorist attacks by giving us backstory, and to do that, it would necessarily have to delve into some very messy politics, both domestically and in the far more obscure worlds of national security and intelligence. This would require guesswork involving a good deal of redacted sections of government reports to fill out the story. However you decide to do it, you're going to upset some people. This seems like a reasonable concern for a studio, especially when the film is already fighting an uphill battle financially.
Finally, there remains the fact that 'The 9/11 Story' simply isn't over yet. We don't know how it ends. This is a major artistic concern, and it's unclear how it will turn out. Ten years ago, the country was attacked; we responded by fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars that continue to this day. And then ...? Creatively, this is an incomplete and ongoing story. Art can be very good at looking back at something that has run its course; it is not necessarily suited for guessing what might happen next. (Though an 'Inglourious Basterds'-style imagined-future take could be interesting.)
Further complicating things from a filmmaking standpoint is the fact that 9/11 wasn't a straightforward military attack; the victims were largely civilians, and the perpetrators were neither soldiers nor actual representatives of any country. Though the Pentagon is certainly a military target, the Twin Towers were a cultural, symbolic and economic target. Despite some initial similarities, this was a very different event from something like Pearl Harbor -- a clear-cut military assault.
Two thousand seven-hundred fifty innocent people were brutally murdered that day, an emotionally destructive act for the entire country that ripped open a wound that for many remains unhealed. Despite the many acts of genuine heroism on 9/11 -- acts depicted well in both 'United 93' and 'World Trade Center' -- the attacks themselves, if put up on-screen for audiences to endure all over again, would demand a subsequent catharsis. Cinematic structure does not call for a simple retelling of the facts; a good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. The events of that day were so appalling and gruesome and unprecedented that we still don't know what a complete response is. That's why the story feels unfinished: because it is. Best anyone can tell right now is that we might be approaching the end of 'The 9/11 Story,' but more likely we're in the middle, and, hopefully, it's not still the beginning. An event like 9/11, something so personal to us as Americans and thus requiring the highest levels of storytelling to get right, probably can't be done on film yet -- because we just don't know the whole tale.
Or do we? When Osama bin Laden was killed earlier this year, that may have given filmmakers a final act. Kathryn Bigelow's upcoming film about the military raid that killed the al-Qaida leader has the opportunity to do something new here. Whereas the attack on the World Trade Center is probably the most-seen event in history, and thus isn't something particularly appealing for a director to attempt to film, Bigelow's movie can show audiences something no one has seen: a Navy SEAL shooting the villain of 9/11 in the face.
That might be the answer to all three problems discussed above: 1) It could draw people into the theater by showing them something they haven't yet seen and may even want to see desperately; 2) it could rise above the political fray by sticking to the tale of a daring, successful military operation, not the murkier issues surrounding it; and 3) artistically, it provides a closing, cathartic act to the story. While there's no guarantee the film will achieve those goals, it does have a decent chance. Maybe it's not technically "comprehensive" or "definitive," but as far as movies go, it just might be known one day as 'The 9/11 Story.' No pressure, Kathryn.
Photos: National Geographic, Getty Images (2)