Saturday, September 11, 2021

9/11 Anniversary Observations

The following essay was written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It has been updated and revised for the 20th anniversary.—JLP

It was not long after the towers fell that I recall a cynical observation being made about how some screenwriter in Hollywood was going to try and cash in on the spectacle of the tragedy and write a screenplay about it.

I never thought that comment was fair to that hypothetical screenwriter. Fictional narratives have been structured around historical events for as long as stories have been told. Art has always been used to help individuals and entire societies process the grief associated with tragic events and the collaborative art form of cinema is no exception.

Over the last two decades, films based on 9/11 have become their own genre. Most of these films were made, not with an eye toward exploitation but as genuine artistic endeavors that have served to help us put that horrible day into perspective. Some did so by recreating key events of that day like "United 93," and "World Trade Center." Others tried to help us understand the myriad factors that lead up to the attack, the cultural thinking behind it, and our response—or failure to respond—like "Fahrenheit 9/11," and "The Looming Tower."

Of the September 11 documentaries that were made that used footage and audio that was recorded on that day, as well as personal stories related by the people who experienced it first-hand, I was moved the most by two films in particular: "9/11"—which was broadcast by CBS on the night before the 6 month anniversary of the tragedy—and "Rebirth" which follows the lives of several people who were directly affected by the events at the World Trade Center in a series of interviews conducted over several years, documenting their personal growth and stories as they came to terms with their losses.

However, the 9/11-themed films that have affected me the most have been those that have told fictional stories set within the context of 9/11—either with the attacks occurring concurrently with the story or showing the way that they affected the lives of the characters in the longer term. The first one that I saw was, of all things, a Disney Channel Movie starring Hayden Panettiere and Bill Pullman called "Tiger Cruise." At first, I avoided watching it. Not because of the 9/11 references—at the time, I wasn't even aware that the film referenced the event at all—but because I'm a Navy veteran and I wasn't interested in watching what I thought could have been a Disney-co-sponsored recruitment ad. Eventually, I relented and watched it. I was glad I did. That's when I learned about the 9/11 references and I really liked how they were made, from the perspectives of active-duty military members and their families.

"Reign Over Me"—a rare and welcome example of an Adam Sandler movie that is nothing like your typical Adam Sandler movie—tells the story of a widower who lost his family when they were flying aboard one of the highjacked airliners. An incredible representation of the tragedy affecting an individual and how his friends are in turn affected by him.

In Tamara Jenkins' film "The Savages" with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, a direct 9/11 reference did not come until well into the film as the story is primarily about two adult siblings dealing with the special needs of their elderly father but I remember being hooked by the story with a reference to the psychologically-menipulative Homeland Security Advisory System when Linney's character calls Hoffman's on the phone in the middle of an emotional crisis. His response is to ask her to gauge the severity of her crisis using the color codes associated with the now-defunct terror alert formula. This was an excellent example of how a decidedly political response to earth-shattering events can influence a culture.

The sociopolitical repercussions of 9/11 also inspired some interesting storytelling set in Iraq and Afghanistan, not just during our military engagements there—as depicted in films and series like "Green Zone," "The Hurt Locker," and "Over There"—but stories that took place in those countries many years prior to 9/11 such as "Charlie Wilson's War." I wonder if a film like "The Kite Runner" would ever have been made were it not for U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Would westerners have ever been aware, let alone cared, about the struggles faced by the Afghan people when the two major powers vying for control of the country were two opposite authoritarian extremes: atheistic communists and the religiously fanatical Taliban (who had an ostensibly religious objection to—of all things—kite flying). The United States' military withdrawal from the region almost 20 years later gave us a new context in which to reflect on the affect that outside forces have had on its population.

The effects of U.S. military action in response to 9/11 on the home front were also explored cinematically. "The Lucky Ones" was a poignant look at military culture and the effects war has on comrades in arms and their families. The effects of PTSD on returning soldiers were dramatized in the fact-based film "In the Valley of Elah" with Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, and a number of actual Iraq War veterans. The conflicted emotions of a Marine who took advantage of the opportunity not to fight and remain stationed safely in the States with his family were addressed in "Taking Chance" with Kevin Bacon, also based on a true story.

One of the most intense films in any of these genres that I enjoyed very much is "Buried" with Ryan Reynolds. The fictional story of an American contractor working in Iraq who is kidnapped and held for ransom. It's hard to believe that one can be so affected by a film that keeps its audience in a box with the main character for 94 minutes without so much as a flashback to stretch one's legs. The phone call he receives from his employers while trapped in that shallow grave is especially aggravating to brilliant dramatic effect.

There were also stories told that tried to address these same events and issues but fell short of their potential. "Stop Loss" and "Remember Me" come to mind. "Day Zero" addressed the fears of what could happen in a world where seemingly endless war leads to reinstatement of conscripted service in the U.S. military.

One exercise that I undertook when originally researching this article utilized an interesting feature of the Internet Movie Database. The ability to filter film and actor-related information based on specific dates. One of the intended purposes of this feature, I'm sure, was to satisfy the curiosity of trivia fans so they can find out when particular films originally premiered and where, or when their favorite celebrity birthdays are. I learned that I share a birthday with a number of different actors—Jerry O'Connell and I are exactly the same age; born on the same day in the same year.

One can also find out the dates on which specific actors died. While most might look up a famous name like Cary Grant or Ingrid Bergman to learn when and where they passed away, and perhaps where they are buried; the IMDb also gives users the ability to input a specific date and find out who was born and who died on that day, at least among those individuals included in their database.

One day, I entered "September 11, 2001" and clicked on the search icon...

The attacks happened on the birthdays of several well-known actors, performing artists, and public figures including Virginia Madsen, Harry Connick Jr., Moby, and Roxann Dawson—an actor and director well known in the Star Trek franchise. Speaking of Star Trek, a person by the name of Jeffrey Coombs was onboard American Airlines Flight 11 which crashed into the World Trade Center. It was initially reported that it was Jeffrey Combs (with only one "o")—another Star Trek veteran—who had died. I remember Combs addressing the public through the official Star Trek website to clarify that he had not died and to share his feelings surrounding the event—I was unable to find a link to his statement.

Of course, I had to see if anyone on the IMDb had died on September 11, 2001. When I last checked, 31 individuals, were listed in the IMDb as having died that day. 27 of those deaths were in New York, New York; Shanksville, Pennsylvania, or Arlington, Virginia. Most of those have the September 11 attacks referenced in their biographies or are directly attributed as their cause of death—described as "Homicide," "Victim of" or "Perished in."

One can only infer from the date and locations whether or not the others who died on that day were victims of the attacks.

A dozen or so of the names listed were placed on the IMDb posthumously, credited as appearing in documentaries through "archive footage"—most likely home movies—or simply had their names included in a dedication in the closing credits. These individuals were not in the film or television industries though one is said to have appeared as an audience member on "The Tonight Show." Another as a reality show contestant. One of the people who died was a regular guest on "Politically Incorrect" with Bill Maher." Maher left one of his panel chairs empty for a week in honor of this individual.

Of the victims who were involved in the film industry, there was a composer by the name of Gerard 'Rod' Coppola. I read nothing to indicate whether or not he was related to Francis Ford Coppola. A staff writer for "Cheers," "Wings" and "Frasier" died with his wife on one of the hijacked aircraft. A camera operator who is listed as having died on 9/11/01 also has a credit for a 2003 production—it's certainly possible that the project was still in post-production or had been shelved for a couple of years.

A few names stood out to me. Chuck Margiotta was once a stunt man. It makes a certain sense that someone in that line of work might transition from film stunts to being a firefighter.

Charles McCrann was a senior vice-president of a financial-services conglomerate with offices at the World Trade Center. He was also a film buff who wrote, produced, directed, edited, and acted in a horror movie called "Bloodeaters."

Of the people with film industry credits who died on September 11, 2001, very few of them were well known in the film industry, or even within their specific fields. Indeed, many of them had no more than one or two credits on their IMDb profiles. They had only participated in short films, an episode or two of a television show or in independent features in minor roles either in front of or behind the camera and then moved on with their lives. Lives that eventually lead to jobs at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, or just as passengers on those ill-fated flights.

I couldn't help but wonder as I read those names and their modest resumes if these people ever talked about their on-set experiences. I like to think that from time to time a conversation about favorite films in the break room or at lunch would prompt them to say, "Yeah, I worked on a movie once." What was the reaction of their coworkers to these revelations? Were they fascinated? Did they respond with questions like, "Did you meet anyone famous?" How long did that little spark of recognition and perhaps pride last before they had to get back to work? If they had time to reflect on their lives before they died, did any of their thoughts turn to their time on a set? Did they once consider choosing a career in that industry before moving on to something they might have thought would be a little more financially secure? A little safer?

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and—especially where guest posts are concerned—do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Utah Filmmakers™ Association, its officers, and/or associates.