Each generation seems to have a defining historical moment that changes them forever. The Great Depression, World War II, the Kennedy Assassination and Vietnam, Watergate and then….what? The kids born post-Watergate were defined more by the changing technological world than by tragic historic events. The closest thing we had to a, “Where were you when…?” moment was the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger or the verdict in the OJ trial. That changed thirteen years ago today. The events of 9/11 have altered the hearts, minds and lives of everyone. There’s a clear demarcation line between the way things were before 9/11 and how they’ve become post.A society’s art and history are inextricably linked. There have been dozens of novels, TV shows and films about the events I listed above, but after 13 years, what has been the response of the creative community to 9/11? The predominant response has been to focus on “The War on Terror”. It’s an easier thing to take a stand on, no matter what the angle you want to take. The angle most often taken has been to examine the erosion of privacy and the civil rights abuses that have taken place. Showtime’s Homeland offers perhaps the most balanced examination of law enforcement in a new world. Movies like Rendition, Lions for Lambs and others are about as subtle as a Team America: World Police in examining the issues.
If you’re looking for the best explanation of how we got to the point of 9/11, there’s no better primer than Charlie Wilson’s War (either the superb film or the equally incredible book by George Crile). If you want to know the future, look to the past. There’s nothing new under the sun; it all cycles around. Recognizing the patterns and looking for recurrences is the unenviable task of civilian and military minds, who work day and night to make sure another attack doesn’t strike occur. One admirable quality that seems uniform across the opinion spectrum is that the men and women serving in these wars are heroes and should be treated accordingly. Even if you believe the wars to be unjust, the men on the front lines aren’t getting the kind of hostile treatment their forebears did in Vietnam. HBO’s outstanding miniseries Generation Kill (and the book upon which it’s based) did an excellent job of portraying what life has been like for those who choose to stand between us and the enemy.
The hunt for the architect of the evil, Osama bin Laden, was unflinchingly portrayed in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow presented the hate and the heroism inextricably woven into the men and women (Jessica Chastain was robbed of a Best Actress Oscar) who carried out the covert op that gave America as much closure as we’re ever likely to get from that horrible day.
What has remained almost completely untouched are the attacks themselves. Aside from Oliver Stone, who managed to make a forgettable movie in World Trade Center and Michael Moore’s histrionic Fahrenheit 911, a film solely on the attack on the towers is probably still at least a decade away from giving audiences enough perspective to look back on it as a tragic piece of history and not as a gaping wound in the heart of the nation.
The best piece of art that’s come out since the attacks, doesn’t even focus on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. Paul Greengrass’ fly-on-the-wall approach to the hijack and heroism on United 93 is the standard-bearer for how to make a powerful piece that is a compelling and successful film, while also remaining true to the bravery that stopped even more loss of life. The day Americans lost the illusion of invulnerability, we were also reminded about the very best parts of our nature. By stripping the film of all trappings, Greengrass managed to strike a perfect balance and create the first film about the actual attacks that will stand the test of time.
Thirteen years today. It’s still starkly etched into my consciousness as it is for most Americans. We’re still embroiled in wars because of it. The legacy of that dark day will continue to haunt our art just as it does our history. Just as films are still made about all of the defining generational moments that I listed in the beginning, works of art about September 11, 2001, will be a permanent fixture in the future. So many stories from that day are still untold. Some will be biased and exploitative; some just bad. There are, however, true works of historical merit that will proffer the same quality and catharsis that the best films about past tragedies have offered.