We Are Special, We Are Safe: America's Self-Image on Camera Since 9/11

From fear to sentimentality to skepticism, a tour through American cinema after 9/11.

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Jul 5 2015, 5:06am

War of the Worlds, Paramount Pictures

It is not surprising that the tragedy of 9/11 would leave its mark on our nation's art as well as its consciousness. But it's only now, nearly 15 years later, that we are able to parcel through the patterns that have rippled out of the event. Looking back at television in the aftermath of 9/11, it's clear that shows like SNL and Friends—both of which saw significant improvement in their ratings in 2002—provided some sort of comfort for Americans. Meanwhile, Hollywood was negotiating its own uncharted territory, determining how to serve as a kind of entertaining, money-making therapy session for the American masses.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Hollywood started to stall. A host of films—most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage, which centered around a terrorist bombing in downtown Los Angeles—saw massive premiere delays. Others, like Jackie Chan's Nosebleed, about a window washer who stops a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, would be canceled altogether.

Yet it was superhero movies that would come to define the decade that followed, thanks to a renewed interest in a world delineated into heroes and villains. 2002's Spider-Man captured New York City's charged, post-attack energy best. Nowhere is the city's resilience more opaquely plotted than in the film's third act, when the citizens of New York defend Spider-Man in a brawl along the Brooklyn Bridge. One New Yorker even screams, "You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us."

The patriotism and sentimentality that featured in 2002 while the wound was still fresh began to harden up shortly thereafter, and a cultural narrative break occurred between films released immediately after 9/11 and those released after our invasion of Iraq. If Spider-Man captures a momentary blip of renewed American uber-patriotism, the superhero films in the latter years of the Bush administration capture a completely different trend, one that reflects the state of perpetual anxiety wrought by 9/11 alongside the moral queasiness of US strategy abroad. This was most apparent in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, the most definitive blockbusters of the post-9/11 era. Dealing with the heady themes of fear, terrorism, moral incertitude, and class warfare, the Dark Knight films are a topographical map of the country's ideological triggers through the aughts.

Hollywood would attempt to match Nolan's tone—most broadly, "grittiness"—in Blockbuster films to come, employing them in everything from fringe properties like V For Vendetta to cultural mainstays like the James Bond franchise, which would be stripped of humor and wonder in favor of something more recognizable and far more bleak. This renewed interest in realism can be traced back to filmmaker Paul Greengrass, who popularized a radical "handheld" aesthetic in 2004's The Bourne Supremacy. The energy of the effect, dubbed "shakey cam" by critics and viewers, established a new kind of visual language for films of the 2000s, one that largely did away with the conventional Hollywood sheen in an effort to get at something more "real."

This idea of "real" is one that most commonly framed peoples' reaction to September 11, the single most documented catastrophe in human history. Predicated largely by the birth of the 24-hour news cycle, 9/11 coverage spewed a pool of constant content that eventually began to circulate individual cell phone recordings as often as official news footage. This subjective and choppy documentation became our new aesthetic reference point, giving rise to the formal exploration of single takes.

Our fears and anxieties caused us to create films with tidy endings, but the further we get from 9/11, the more we've begun to approach those black-and-white ideas with renewed unease.

Alfonso Cuarón's bleak, brilliant Children Of Men would explore the humanity of a world bordering dystopic ruin, featuring an uninterrupted single take during the film's final act in a momentary ceasefire between two sets of radical combatants. Greengrass himself would go on to direct the first major release about September 11 with United 93, which documented the passenger uprising of a hijacked plane that crash-landed in Pennsylvania, en route to Washington, DC.

United 93 was noted for its unnerving realism, and its use of real time mimics the same concept behind the single take: 9/11's hyper-reality came from its being the first catastrophe to break in real time, with speculation and information occurring live, unedited, and undigested.

9/11 also left its mark on horror films, spawning the herpes of horror tropes: found footage. While The Blair Witch Project took the nation two years prior to the attacks, the film's central conceit removed it from the recognizable world. Post-9/11 films like Cloverfield, [REC], and Paranormal Activity, meanwhile, were invested in the familiar, tapping into notions of anxiety and home invasion and subverting a crucial horror trope by having many of the film's key scares occur during the day. Clear, bright skies provided a new canvas for horror after decades of being afraid only of the dark.

Zero Dark Thirty, Annapurna Pictures

Before 9/11, films depicting global chaos took disparate storylines and connected them through disaster. After 9/11, disaster films returned their focus to the values and tensions of the American nuclear family. Take Steven Spielberg's 2005 War of the Worlds. The original radio broadcast by Orson Wells occurred at the height of Nazi Germany's rise in power, and the first film adaptation came at the peak of Cold War anxiety. Spielberg, whose own history with aliens never veered into horror, catapulted Worlds into the shadow of America after 9/11 and brought the scope of the film back down to human size. Instead of a global adventure, the film's focus is on a single family, with Tom Cruise as patriarch. Action and terror found themselves, suddenly, on the human scale.

War of the Worlds' teaser trailer is peppered with references to the envious eyes of an Other, baring similarity to much of the "they hate us for our freedom" rhetoric used to frame the growing conflict abroad. Even the film's tagline—"They're Already Here"—is loaded with reference to the anxiety that terrorists could be anywhere among us. The imagery of World War II—rumbling cities, dark skies, large-scale displacement—was replaced by 9/11's: steel beams as headstones, plane wreckage as the chief symbol of doomsday.

But some of the more interesting quagmires of American life and morality didn't come to a head until after the invasion of Iraq. The active engagement with 9/11 imagery would begin to dilute as the decade went on, and by late in the aughts, Iraq would prove the more fertile soil for cultivating our anxieties. A renewed interest in extreme cinema, most grotesquely captured in the rise of torture porn, would capture a kind of blood thirst that American horror films had moved away from during the renaissance of slasher films and Japanese remakes. Instead, around the time when the ethics of torture abroad began to launch questions about the contradictory values of the country at large, films like Saw and Hostel tested our levels of mass desensitization. Even Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ would prove to challenge the decade-long investment in realism by using violence as a proxy for retribution.

By the second decade of the new millennium, Hollywood began distancing itself from aggressive narrative engagement with September 11. Gritty fatigue gave way to a new type of sincere blockbuster, lightening the tone of superhero franchises thanks in large part to Disney's corporate takeover of Marvel studios. Films about 9/11 have, instead, entered a new era of political abstraction: from the sentimental framing of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in 2011, around the ten-year anniversary of the towers falling to the emotional ambiguity surrounding Osama Bin Laden's death in 2012's Zero Dark Thirty. Our fears and anxieties caused us to create films with tidy endings, but the further we get from 9/11, the more we've begun to approach those black-and-white ideas with renewed unease. At the end of Thirty, Jessica Chastain's fictionalized CIA analyst sits quietly on an Afghani tarmac while a military pilot asks where she'd like to go next. Hollywood and America seem similarly unsure of how to respond.

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