9/11: 9 Years Later
Nine years ago. It seems like just yesterday that our generation’s ’date that will live in infamy‘ took place. Nine years ago today the world as we knew it changed. Nine years ago yesterday, the average American knew little of weapons of mass destruction, Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. . . What were we doing nine years ago yesterday? I know I was a junior in high school. But what did the world look like? I can hardly remember. So let’s reminisce.
September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday that year. The weekend before, the number one at the box office was Peter Hyams’s The Musketeer starring Mena Suvari and Tim Roth, making a whopping $10.3 million in what was its opening weekend. Also released that weekend were the Black romantic comedy Two Can Play That Game and the Mark Wahlberg critique of the music industry Rock Star. That night the music industry had its focus on two areas. Jay-Z was preparing to release his sixth album, The Blueprint, the next day while POD was under similar preparations for their new album Satellite. The music industry also had its focus on Michael Jackson’s concert in Madison Square Garden celebrating 30 years of his solo career and to promote the future launching of what would be his last album Invincible. On this day, a British man found a way to cheat his way to 1 million pounds on the British version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. Many Americans went to sleep that night wondering how the Denver Broncos would cope with the loss of Ed McCaffrey to a broken leg in the first Monday Night Football game of the season (Broncos beat the Giants 31-20 in their first game in a new stadium). Other than that, the days leading up to the defining moment of the 21st Century were just average ordinary days. The day before, the New York Daily News’s front page story spoke of the biggest threat to the city at the time: killer mold in an east-side apartment. So what were some of the other main differences between now and then? Let’s look at what our culture looked like through a lens that gives profound snapshots of culture at that or any time: movies.
Two years before 9/11, the movie everyone was talking about as the perfect snapshot of our culture was the Oscar-winning film American Beauty. The focus? A man going through a mid-life crisis that quits his job, buys his dream car, and tries to get in shape to impress his daughter’s friend while his wife looks for great success as a real estate agent. Many of those themes are now long lost dreams in a society where jobs are scarce, classic “gas-guzzling” cars are almost considered evil, and the real estate market is struggling to say the least.
Other ideas found in movies are considered foreign and obsolete now. No more can we see Nicolas Cage doing his action sprint down an airport terminal to meet Tea Leoni just before she gets on her plane like in 2000’s The Family Man. No more could Lloyd Christmas fall off the jetway, again, as a limo driver in Dumb and Dumber. No more can Fletcher Reed hijack a flight of stairs and chase down an airplane, making it stop by throwing shoes at the cockpit so his son won’t have to go Boston in Liar Liar. No more can Greg Focker use his Chinese Death Grip on his suitcase while screaming it’s not a bomb (which makes everyone think it is a bomb) and not be considered an enemy of the state like in Meet the Parents. The days in which these acts were acceptable are now gone due to them being breaches in new security and potential terrorist threats. Films that depict direct attacks on our nation are even more forbidden. No more can we watch President Harrison Ford make terrorist Gary Oldman “get off his plane” in Air Force One. No more can aliens come down to Earth and blow up the White House like in Independence Day. Even films like Con Air where an airplane is seen crashing through the streets on Las Vegas would have a tough time being filmed. If you really think of these moments being filmed the way they were in our post-9/11 culture, you realize that there is no way they could be made.
So what has changed in our movies these last nine years? Instead of the care-free Lester Burnham in American Beauty, we have Ryan Bingham, George Clooney’s professional downsizer in Up in the Air. This film also portrays the new look of airports, with stricter security checks and a lead character that purposefully wears slip-on shoes to be more efficient after they run through the X-ray scanner. Instead of war films looking back at the great wars of our past like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, we have our new war to dramatize on the screen in films like The Hurt Locker and Stop-Loss. Outside of Up in the Air and films set before 2001, I cannot even think of a meaningful scene in a movie that takes place in an airport that does not involve Viktor Navorski. This used to be a stereotypically perfect place for a climactic scene. Now, it is not even attempted. Instead of trying to create something fresh and original, we find more often than not our focus goes towards direct critiques and commentaries on our culture and government in films like W., Fahrenheit 9/11, An Inconvenient Truth, Michael Clayton, and others. It almost feels like our originality was put into a recession when the World Trade Center tumbled to the ground, as most of the more original ideas of the last decade have been remakes of older films. Life as we know it was changed forever that day, and our movies show it.
[ADDENDUM] If there is one other trend in this post-9/11 era of film making, it is the emergence of the superhero movie. These blockbusters have dominated the box office almost every summer since Spider-Man in 2002. This new brand of superhero film is far different from the campy, quirky styles of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher who sparked the superhero interest in the 80's and 90's. Now, superhero films are dark and realistic. They try to make it feel like this situation could actually exist in our world. Tony Stark was even taken in by cave-dwelling terrorists. Also, every superhero film seems to threaten the well-being of the entire world in some serious way before good wins out in the end. It is as if we were so starving for a sign that good can triumph over evil that we wanted to meld our fantasy superheroes with our terror-stricken society. Why couldn't Batman come flying in and save our world from the terror about to strike? Why couldn't Iron Man travel to the Middle East and wipe out a group of terrorists in an afternoon? Why couldn't The Avengers assemble and defend NYC from a seemingly unstoppable onslaught of evil? We needed a disconnect that gave us hope. Superheroes have been able to do that, and will continue to as many of the big blockbusters announced in future years continue this trend. [END ADDENDUM]
As the years pass, life will slowly start to look a little more like September 10, 2001. With each year, you can see small changes. The fact that we just had a film like Up in the Air, focused in airports and on airplanes, nominated for Best Picture is showing that change. Also, the events are starting to be a little less vivid in everyone’s mind. We observe and remember the day, but it does not resonate as in our everyday lives anymore. (My way of observing the day is viewing one, if not both, of the movies made about that day: Paul Greengrass’s United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center.) If you think about it, 90% of teenagers now most likely remember very little about that day because they were so young. On a day five years ago when all news channels were broadcasting different remembrances and tributes around the country, today the tributes can now only be found on The History Channel. Life is moving on, and the post-9/11 life is the normal way of life more and more every day. And as we remember and observe the 9th anniversary, it is fascinating to look back now on what we looked like before that day, to keep in mind what happened, and to step back and see the lens that our new ’date that will live in infamy’ has created for us to see the world through.
What do you remember? What are your thoughts?