Episode 5: September 11, 2001

EPISODE 5: SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how film and television use history to talk about today. 

I’m Lia Paradis

And I’m Brian Crim. 

Every one of us tries to make sense of our current world by telling versions of history that seem to put the puzzle pieces together, or offer the most validation. Our own lies agreed upon. The writers, directors and producers of films and TV shows are no different. Sometimes the connections they are making between history and the here and now can be fairly obvious. But a lot of it goes unnoticed, misunderstood, or misinterpreted and this is where we come in. 

In this episode of Lies Agreed Upon we examine the day everything changed, September 11, 2001. Until now we’ve talked about how the long cultural shadow of 9/11 influenced films about ancient history, the Cold War, and slavery; or institutions like the press, or the CIA.  But 9/11 itself was off limits. With the images from that day firmly implanted in all of our brains: the impacts, the falling man, the real-time collapse of the towers – nothing Hollywood could produce approximated what we saw transpire on cable news. 

But in 2006 two films came out from directors with reputations for making movies that critically examine historical events. In fact, we’ve looked at both these directors before. Oliver Stone had confronted everything from Vietnam, to American culpability in anti-democratic coups in Central America, to the JFK assassination long before his Alexander bio-pic. And, of course, Paul Greengrass wrote and directed Bloody Sunday, which we discussed last week. And now, five years after 9/11, they both decided to take on the horrific events of that day, each with a different strategy and a different focus.  

Stone’s World Trade Center follows the story of a handful of New York Port Authority policemen, first responders with no idea what they were in for that sunny Tuesday morning. Greengrass’ United 93 takes to the air, recreating the terrifying and chaotic experiences of passengers who stormed the cockpit of the fourth hijacked plane heading to the US Capitol building. These two directors dared to go where no others had gone before – 9/11. They also could not be more different in how they chose to tackle this heretofore black hole of representation.

So what are the lies agreed upon that these 2 movies help us examine? 

Well, first of all:

  1. That it’s big mistakes, or big heroic acts, that change the course of history. We think of history with a capital H as a series of self-contained events, with a clear beginning and end, hinging on the crucial acts of people who are then destined to become ‘historical figures’. But more often than not, it’s the accumulation of little mistakes, or weaknesses in the system; it’s people diligently doing their jobs, or too set on a path to turn back; or it’s the convergence of a random assortment of all those things that determines the course of history. And secondly,
  2. That lessons are learned and substantial changes made when there is evidence of failure and an obvious need for reform. In fiction, people (and institutions) learn from their mistakes, cataclysmic events produce sharp and purposeful changes. But reality, as our students are always shocked to find out, doesn’t play out that way. Change happens – if it happens – despite the prevailing inertia. 

As always, we begin with a recap of the plots. Let’s start with World Trade Center, directed by Oliver Stone and written by Andrea Berloff. Interestingly, this is only the second movie Stone directs that he didn’t also write. It stars Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, and Maggie Gyllenhall. You might catch a glimpse of Jon Berenthal at the beginning, and Michael Shannon has a key role, and you’ll recognize a competent cast of New Yorker type character actors who lend the story some added authenticity.

World Trade Center begins with text informing us that “These accounts are based on the surviving participants”. That’s because the heart of the story is the real life ordeal of Transit Authority cops John Mcloughlin and Will Jimeno, played by Cage and Pena, who were first on the scene at Tower One. Preparing to rescue trapped workers on the upper floors, Mcloughlin’s makeshift crew is buried under tons of rubble when the tower collapses. 

Let’s play a clip of the Port Authority cops arriving at the scene right before tower one collapses.

As we know, 300 first responders were killed at ground zero. McLoughlin and Jimeno are gravely injured and all but certain to die slowly from internal bleeding. The only things that keep them conscious – and alive – are their comradeship – telling stories about loved ones – and doing anything they can to make noise in the hope that someone will hear them.

The story expands beyond the claustrophobic scenes with Mcloughlin and Jimeno to their wives and families, who can only piece together what has happened to their husbands from confused and contradictory reports on the news, just like the rest of us. Donna McLoughlin, played by Bello, and Allison Jimeno, played by Gyllenhall, play the dutiful and strong wives that are obligatory for cinematic hero narratives, each forced to placate their children and families while suppressing their own emotions. We learn Donna and John’s marriage is going through a rough spot and Allison, seven months pregnant, is in danger of losing the baby from the intense stress. Everyone tries to be useful it seems, but they feel helpless. The viewer is supposed to relate – or even relive their own memories of that day – through the confusion and helplessness of these family members.  

Stone attempts to remind the viewer of the bigger story, showing foreigners glued to their TVs in empathy, and the small town Wisconsin firefighters who drive immediately to ground zero to help out in any way they can. But the only additional storyline here is that of Dave Karnes, played by Michael Shannon. Karnes is a recently retired Marine working a boring white collar job. As news of the day’s events unfold, Karnes, a deeply religious man, is compelled to don his uniform and march down to ground zero with his go bag and dive right in. He’s crucial to the story because he’s the one who ultimately discovers McLoughlin and Jimeno clinging to life 12 hours after the towers collapsed.

Thanks to more first responders risking their own lives, and much to the shock of their wives, who by this time assumed their husbands were dead, McLoughlin and Jimeno are rescued, though their roads to recovery are long. 

The film ends a few years removed from 9/11 when McLoughlin and Jimeno are honored and celebrated by the community. Their families are intact, and have grown. Mcloughlin’s voice over places their story at the heart of a redemptive narrative about 9/11. Let’s listen to that:

We’ll talk more about what Oliver Stone tried to do here and why, but let’s break down our second film, United 93.

Paul Greengrass’ expertly directed Bloody Sunday, which we discussed last episode, introduced us to his wandering camera and cinema verite style. He brings this approach to the incredibly tense and gut wrenching United 93, using the story of the one plane that did not reach its target, most likely the Capitol, to tell the bigger story of that morning.

There are no identifiable “stars” on the plane, just some recognizable character actors, and back on the ground, in some cases, Greengrass enlisted the actual men and women who participated on the day – air traffic controllers, NORAD officers – whose IMDB entry consists of just this one film. This is by design because, unlike World Trade Center, which needed Cage and Pena to carry the film, United 93 is about the event. None of us want to imagine what it would have been like to be on that plane but Greengrass puts us there. We could have been any one of them.

The film begins with the hijackers praying in their hotel rooms the morning of September 11. The perspective expands to reveal the totally normal routines of all those involved. Pilots chatting about the weather, flight attendants stocking condiments, passengers tending to their family or finishing emails to work. We also see inside various air traffic control hubs, including the FAA in Virginia which will ultimately become the clearing house for all the contradictory reports to come. Like Bloody Sunday, Greengrass just presents people as they are. The methodical narrative structure takes the myriad participants, agencies, locations, and confusion and creates a coherent timeline so that the viewer can appreciate the complexity of the actual day – humans behaving in very human ways. 

The first mention of hijacking is met with disbelief. As one controller says, “We haven’t had one of those in 4o years.”  As we know, and as he shows, American Airlines Flight 11 is the first to hit the World Trade Center. Greengrass reminds us that everyone – even officials – had to go to CNN for information, not for the first time. The report of a small plane only causes further confusion and lost time.

The FAA rushes to analyze tape and report that a “foreign”voice says “We have some planes.” This portentous line is followed by reports of another plane, United Airlines Flight 175, hitting the second tower. All of this unfolds while United 93 is still on the ground, delayed, and the hijackers are visibly nervous and debate when to make their move.  

The film grows more suspenseful minute by minute and it is a true testament to Greengrass that he can generate this mood even though we already know the result. You can’t help but get drawn in as 93 is airborne while the FAA, military, and control towers are scrambling to make sense of what is happening and what to do about it. The absolute disconnect between the civilian FAA and NORAD, a major point in the post mortem of 9/11, is fully on display here.

Let’s listen to a clip taking us inside the military and FAA control rooms. It’s pretty representative of Greengrass’ eavesdropping style:

The moment of truth comes when the hijackers savagely attack and kill a passenger and then brutally murder the pilots and a flight attendant in the same fashion, taking the helm to redirect the plane to what we assume was a Washington DC target.  Passengers secretly use the phones to contact family and tell them what’s happening and also learn about the planes that had already reached their targets, including one more at the Pentagon (American Airlines 77). 

There is no mistaking what is in store for United 93, and passengers and crew plot together. Interestingly, Greengrass imagines a very human response – they are all clinging to a far-fetched plan to subdue the hijackers and place the one passenger with flight experience in the cockpit. No one proposes intentionally crashing the plane, sacrificing themselves for the sake of potential targets. But the audience, like the passengers, know the real odds. The “Let’s roll” moment is not grand or cathartic, but a bloody slog from one end of the plane to the other. The film ends with the Pennsylvania countryside rushing toward the cockpit. Cut to black and a scroll detailing the timeline of events and the actions, and more significantly, inactions of the government response. 

We decided if we are exploring the cultural legacy of 9/11 this season, we needed an episode on the day itself. And in order to fully appreciate the choices made by Stone and Greengrass in depicting that day, it’s worth revisiting the lies agreed upon that we’re addressing today. 

Remember the lie that history is made up of big choices, big events, big heroics and big villainy.  And remember – in particular as we talk about what might well have been the contextual events that motivated the film makers – the other lie is that people (and institutions) learn from their mistakes, and that we can at least take comfort that huge disasters motivate people in power to make changes for the better. 

Normally we devote a segment to setting the scene, providing some historical context for both the events portrayed on screen and what is going on when the films are released. We don’t need to describe 9/11. But it might be useful to remind people of what was going on a few years later when these movies came out. 

Both were released in the summer of 2006 – United 93 in June, and World Trade Center in September. It’s odd that such a non-summer blockbuster type movie like United 93 would be released in June. But it’s a safe bet that World Trade Center was seen by the studio, and probably by Stone, as one of the IMPORTANT FILMS that show up in the autumn months angling for Oscar nominations. We’ll be talking a bit more about the genre placement of this movie a little bit later. So I think it’s worth noting that the release date is also part of that package. 

It would have been at least a year earlier, however, when these directors decided to pursue these projects, and when they got the green light. 2005 was the first year of Bush’s second term. We can imagine that a critical look at the systemic failures of 9/11 might have galvanized both men – somehow the completion of the 9/11 Commission’s hearings and the publication of their 2-volume Report in 2004 resulted in very little change. The Commission interviewed more than 1,200 witnesses but, at the end of the day, the Chairman’s assessment that the Clinton and Bush administrations had “not been well served” by the FBI, CIA and other agencies, was not much of a revelation. 

Paul Greengrass, however, specifically used the Report’s meticulous reconstruction of the timeline for his film. It is apparent from Bloody Sunday that Greengrass has great faith in the dramatic impact of a fact-based narrative, clearly told. And he uses the narrow focus on United 93 to camouflage what is really a movie about the entire response on that day. 

Another crucial bit of contextual information might be that the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, set up in 2001, expired in 2004. But the first responders like McLoughlin and Jimeno continued to get sick and die from all those toxins they’d been exposed to for weeks and months at Ground Zero. Public sympathy and support for efforts to get long-term funding was strong, while Washington dragged its feet. Perhaps that was one reason Stone, and the studio, thought this was the story to tell about 9/11 and that in 2006 it would pull at America’s heartstrings in an Oscar winning kind of way.

Let’s listen to a CNN report from 2012 recounting the long-term health consequences for first responders and their frustration with a government and society no longer paying attention.

So these movies appeared just as it felt that the long shadow of 9/11 was retreating, but not because of healing, reform, or closure, but because of the notoriously short memory of Washington, and without any real resolution to the failings and crises that had either been created or exposed by the attack. 

Even with all of that, however, it’s perhap not a stretch to say that the 2 events from the summer of 2005 that were still reverberating in the summer of 2006 weren’t directly related to 9/11 at all. Nevertheless, to a post 9/11 world, Hurricane Katrina and the London bombings that came to be known as 7/7 were like trauma on top of trauma. In the case of Katrina, the American public once again felt that something inexplicable and indescribable had happened, that the government had let them down and that it continued to do so a year later. 

Let’s listen to one of Bush’s own policy advisers recalling the Katrina response. This is Dr. Ryan Streeter

In the case of 7/7, the British public felt that the dread and expectation they’d been living with since 9/11 had finally been validated. In 4 bombings, 3 on the London Underground and 1 on a bus, 52 people were killed and more than 700 injured. Here’s a montage of the BBC coverage, incomplete, confused, very similar to what we watched on 9/11 here in the US. 

Londoners found their city shattered during the morning commute just as New Yorkers had.

So, by 2006 we lived with a gargantuan national security budget that created layers of new bureaucracy without solving the fundamental problems revealed by 9/11. As Jon Bernthal’s character yells to Mcloughlin as they rush to get PPE for the ill-fated rescue, “The whole freaking world is coming to an end today!”

I think this gets at the point of both films – the whole world as we knew it did end that day. And yest, at the same time, nothing seemed to change. We have two very different directors portraying the paradox of that “end” and it’s worth diving in a little deeper and interrogating some of their choices.

So with all of this in mind…

Let’s talk about Oliver Stone and World Trade Center, which I think you’ll agree is a most unusual film from the man who brought you searing critiques of American exceptionalism like JFK, Platoon, Salvador, Born on the Fourth of July. Need I go on?  There is nothing about World Trade Center that screams, “An Oliver Stone film.”  We talked about Alexander in our first episode, the film he directed before this one. Let me read you Peter Bradshaw’s review in the Guardian for World Trade Center because I think he might be on to something: 

“It’s almost as if Stone wants to ingratiate himself with the mainstream public that rejected his historical blockbuster Alexander and win the approval of his right-wing critics. To please family audiences, he presents a blue-collar men’s world in which nobody utters a swear word. And unlike Paul Greengrass’s picture about the passengers on the hijacked United 93 fighting back against the Islamic terrorists, World Trade Center is a curiously passive affair.”

I don’t want to discount World Trade Center entirely. It is technically accomplished, has a compelling narrative, and a satisfying resolution. What I can’t understand is why Oliver Stone in 2006 tells the story of “the good” to come out of 9/11, the bravery and selflessness of first responders, without commenting on how “the bad” – disastrous wars of choice and government dysfunction – stand in stark contrast to his subjects. In fact, Stone seems to lean into the narrative that everything that came after 9/11 was meant to happen.

Consider the character of David Karnes, who is also a real person by the way, no less heroic than Mcloughlin and Jimeno, and Michael Shannon is brilliant in all things. However, he plays Karnes like his memorable role in Boardwalk Empire as Prohibition agent Nelson van Alden. Nelson was a religious zealot who saw everything as a crusade. When we meet Karnes he is in church, shaken by the day’s events and compelled to serve. Stone films him under an enormous cross as Karnes has an epiphany – he is going to war.  Here’s the clip. Karnes is talking with his pastor:

Karnes, who is not active duty, puts on his old uniform and walks straight into ground zero. No one even questions who he is because he’s a Marine. Surely he must belong. Karnes, after laying eyes on the twisted metal, weirds out the firefighter nearby, telling him: “It’s like God made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what we’re not yet ready to see.” It is Karnes who hears the metallic pings from McLoughlin and Jimeno and brings help. He saved them, and when the film ends Karnes is ready to crusade further, quitting his job to reenlist and, as he puts it, “avenge this.” Where? Iraq, two tours. Did Oliver Stone, a fierce critic of the war, just endorse it and the false rationale for it – that Saddam Hussain had something to do with it?   

Speaking of war, World Trade Center carries all the earmarks of the combat war film. The genre was developed during World War II, and has been a Hollywood mainstay ever since.  More recent versions include Saving Private Ryan, the miniseries Band of Brothers, and Fury, which also stars Michael Pena.  You know the elements of the war film. There’s always a multiethnic, multiracial unit that face internal and external threats. They have a deadly mission, many don’t return. Sacrifices are made, but seldom questioned. They write letters to wives, who are left home to worry about them in very distinct separate spheres. In World Trade Center, Stone has, in essence, constructed a platoon, and volunteers. Irish, Italian, Hispanic, African-American. They wear a uniform and die in service. The arrival of Dave Karnes reinforces the fact that this is a variation of a combat film.

Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) in Columbia Pictures’ FURY.

I think both films are decidedly apolitical, but maybe choosing that route makes them exceptionally political. World Trade Center is strangely conservative and defensive, exemplified by McLoughlin’s passive aggressive coda suggesting we should remember the good things about humanity, how we came together, etc. . . . We did so and promptly waged wars of aggression from which we have yet to extricate ourselves.

And while a war, and 9/11, are decidedly BIG EVENTS, the execution of them, and the outcome of them, are not the result of big actions but, rather, the cumulative small actions of many, many people. So much more is random or piecemeal than we want to acknowledge. Because with lives in the balance, we hold on to the idea that there is some master plan. It’s more comforting.

United 93 is minimalist – there are no grand speeches or weighty symbols like an enormous cross. There is no genre formula here, just a brutal, no frills rendering of a horrible, epoch ending event. I seem to be going to Peter Bradshaw’s reviews a lot, but they’re always substantive. I like this point about how Paul Greengrass doesn’t need to glorify or vilify ordinary people caught in this nightmarish 90 minutes: 

“United 93 is growing, in popular legend, into the tragic and redemptive part of the 9/11 story: America’s act of Sobibor defiance. It is a myth-making which is growing in parallel with jabbering conspiracy theories that the plane was shot down by US air-force jets and the whole passenger-action story is a cover-up. On that latter point, Greengrass’s movie shows us that it is easy to be wise after the event; it is a reminder of how unthinkable 9/11 was, of how all too likely it was that the civil and military authorities would not have mobilised in time, and that any action would indeed have to come from the passengers themselves.”

Some read this as a harsh critique of the Bush administration, but maybe it’s just how it went. Institutions fail when tested sometimes. That happened here. When the time came to finally represent the unrepresentable two accomplished directors came at the day from diametrically opposed perspectives. Stone made a big budget Movie of the Week. It feels good, a bright spot in a tragedy, a tale of redemption. Greengrass is unflinching, choosing to memorialize the passengers by eschewing the Hollywood treatment. 

I know its a strange line from a strange man, but when Michael Shannon’s Karnes says God “made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what we’re not yet ready to see” I thought about how Hollywood depicts atrocity and disaster, or if they ever really come close. Were we ready to see in 2006?  Stone pushed us to see things in a certain way. Greengrass just said, “Look.”

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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