Movies about 9/11 are starting to arrive now, five years after the event. The opening of the first of these, "United 93," has led some to wonder if enough time has elapsed and if the images in this and future 9/11 movies, expected to be intense and dramatic, might be too difficult for the many families of victims and the general public. I know that, personally, I don’t look forward to being thrust deep into painful and disturbing scenes—I was one of those hysterical types who felt deeply unhinged for weeks after the attacks. The question is, can the films offer any insight or catharsis at this point?
I remember, years ago, reading Harvard psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton’s study of the victims of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. He described how important it was for people to find a story that would restore their lives and their world. Something absolutely alien, shocking, and destructive had happened to them and had burst apart the cosmos they had understood and lived all their lives. Although the attacks of 9/11 were not nearly as destructive as the atomic bombs of the 1940s, to Americans they were earthshaking, and the country is still suffering from a hole in the psyche.
But just making a film of the events, even though partly fictional and dramatic, doesn’t ensure that viewers will find a real story that will settle their souls and lead them into a better future. Some apparent stories, in fact, are not stories at all. They attempt simply to place the viewer back in literal time and go through the trauma all over again. In other words, they are merely sensational and appeal to the masochistic impulse in each of us.
You don’t hear much about masochism in the popular press, but it is a human tendency of great importance. The workable blend of strength and vulnerability, courage and fear, trust and suspicion that allows us to deal with life’s challenges can often fall apart. A split develops, and strength is no longer tempered by vulnerability. We divide into doers and the done-to, agents and victims, the powerful and the fearful, instead of keeping these strong emotions in tension within ourselves.
A good film could tell the story of 9/11 in a way that would help us think through the issues without becoming further divided in ourselves. It could offer some insight and the beginning, at least, of a narrative that would help us restore our world, find our optimism, and constructively deal with any problems that may have led to the tragedy. It could help us transform the anxiety created by 9/11 into character, our only hope for a better world.
A bad film will keep us split internally, sustain our fear and belligerence, and prevent us from dealing effectively with the complicated world situation that led to 9/11 and its aftermath. It may open up fear and anger and paranoia in a way that takes us back into raw emotion rather than forward into thoughtful reflection. Catharsis often requires revisiting a memory, but not literally. We need to feel the emotions in a context of open wonder rather than victimization and vengeance.
I will not go to see "United 93." Critics say that the film is well made and avoids the usual clichés of disaster movies. Maybe it makes sense to some people to relive those events in a literal way. Maybe such a film would help make a story out of a jumble of emotions. But I would like a story that takes me deeper into the mystery of what happened, of what happens to make humans become savage with each other.
The makers of "United 93" claim that families of victims approve of their kind of film. Like most Americans, I’m eager to know how the families cope and find strength and offer the rest of us vision. But to broadcast their approval of a film is too close to exploitation of a special group of people. I’d rather let the film speak for itself. If it gives us insight and strength of character, then it is certainly valid and worth seeing.
I guess I would feel better if the film on 9/11 were made by the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, or some other profound spiritual visionary who could sort out the subtleties and offer an unconventional but effective response. Maybe I’m naïve in wishing that, similarly, a major film offer wisdom rather than sensationalism.
I know that film has the great potential to present a narrative full of mystery, complexity, and insight. The examples of truly instructive films are too numerous to even begin a list. I’m reminded of the 1959 film "Hiroshima mon amour." Alain Resnais was asked to direct a documentary on the bombed city, but instead, with Marguerite Duras, made a haunting film about the love between a French woman and a Japanese man. Maybe we would benefit more from a film that captures the intimate and complex aspects of 9/11 than from a raw docu-drama.
I don’t mean that a good film has to be moralistic, dry, and philosophical. A raucous comedy can do the trick. Entertainment is an important consideration—we need it for peace of mind and relaxation. But there is no rule that says you can’t be entertained and edified at the same time.
The question is not whether we are emotionally ready to see disturbing images, but whether we can reflect more intelligently on what happened. Will the more mature filmmakers take a stab at helping us sort out the events of 9/11, or will the emotionally underdeveloped, who seem always to have a hand in “disaster” films, direct our thoughts about such an important event?
A good storyteller is a philosopher, a theologian, and an artist. He or she spends time in deep reflection and has a gift for expressing the near inexpressible in powerful images. Human beings have always needed good storytellers, not so much to learn from their past as to become more thoughtful and mature people through reflection on disturbing events. But good storytellers don’t always get the high-paying jobs. In Hollywood, when they do get a job, their work is often turned over to the formula-makers and sensationalists, whose job it is to clear out the complexity and nix the insight.
If the first films about 9/11 to appear fail the test of insight and maturity, I’m confident that eventually a film or two will come along and take our thoughts deep. In the spirit of Resnais and Duras, some filmmakers will have the courage and vision to tilt the conventional story and reveal its dark side. Such a film could help us lose any naïve ideas we may have about the world at the turn of this millennium.