Written By September/October 2011 : Page 17
9/11 Plus Ten SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2011 WGA W Written By SPECIAL SECTION: HOW WRITERS WORK 10 YEARS AFTER • 17
9/11 Plus Ten
In a decade of anxiety, cinema changed to deflect and reflect homeland insecurity.<br /> <br /> At first I thought I’d heard gunshots, but then realized a neighbor had lit off a belt of firecrackers. This particular moment—Sunday, May 1, 2011— arrived upon a mild evening, in a last flare of magic-hour light. The plan was to watch a movie with a friend, but I stopped to check email and was confronted with a live image from the White House, an empty podium with a long corridor behind it, pending a major presidential announcement. <br /> <br /> Osama bin laden killed, read the spoiler subtitling Barack Obama as he strode up to give the world the news. My neighbor lit off another belt of fireworks. Cherry bombs, ash cans, and side-winding whistlers began to sound as well, from many blocks away.<br /> <br /> What does the hero want, and what prevents him or her from getting it? <br /> <br /> This formulation, older than Aristotle but most freshly reiterated by David Mamet, illuminates the euphoria that was spontaneously expressed by people of all ages and political stripes that night, not only in my neighborhood but outside the White House, and near Ground Zero in Manhattan. Call it giving the public what they want: The progress of our story toward the attainment of a single well-defined goal. Here was a satisfying climax and conclusion to the national narrative of “9/11.” The man who’d ordered a merciless surprise attack that took the lives of some 3,000 defenseless American civilians on September 11, 2001, had at last been tracked to his hideout and killed in his pajamas, put to death by the sword he’d lived by. <br /> <br /> God forgive him, God can have him, Good riddance. <br /> <br /> Of course, “history” is a narrative, but life is not. Terrorism didn’t begin with Bin Laden, and it won’t end with his death any more than it did with Timothy McVeigh’s execution the summer prior to 9/11. Literally as I write these words, on July 22, a young proto-Nazi living in Norway has just dressed up as A policeman and killed upwards of 76 people in a phobic psychotic protest against “multiculturalism.” Our world will forever abound in benighted renegades awaiting their elevations to Legend. <br /> <br /> Yet the perpetual war for our identity as a Republic— fought from our nation’s very beginnings, but raging with singular intensity every day since the smoke cleared over the fallen towers—is first and last a struggle of competing narratives. When such a major protagonist dies—hate Bin Laden or pray for him, he caused America and the world around it to change direction in a single blow—his death should be the catharsis which, for the moment, resolves the many conflicts in play. We’re right to catch our breath. <br /> <br /> This is especially necessary for those of us making our livings by storytelling.<br /> <br /> 9/11, meet 11/22/63 <br /> <br /> David Thomson once observed that a striking array of the most outstanding American films made between 1964 and 1980 react in sometimes conscious, often unconscious ways to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The same could now be said of movies made between 2001 and the present in relation to 9/11, whether we’re talking about Gangs of New York or Cowboys & Aliens. But such a deeply ingrained, shared response to any public trauma becomes fully visible only with the passage of time.<br /> <br /> Producer Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn referred privately to the ultraviolent shootout they devised at the climax of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as “our Zapruder moment.” That horrific slow-motion spectacle, much-imitated by countless other films from The Wild Bunch forward, certainly expressed— without purging the burden of—the haunting after-image of JFK’s having been filmed as he was murdered, on a homemovie camera by Abraham Zapuder. <br /> <br /> Notice, too, the thicket of magnified Leaves explored in greater and greater enlargements at the heart of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up (1967) [adapted by Antonioni and Tonino Guerra from Julio Cortazar’s story; English dialogue by Edward Bond]. There, the slats of picket fence part to reveal the thickening shadow of a gunman concealed beyond in a deliberate echo of those leafy magnifications in the Zapruder film that disclose an equally anomalous figure lurking in the bushes on the Grassy Knoll. Antonioni, who co-wrote and directed Blow-up, had befriended Kennedy while he was president, securing a promise that he could accompany one of the Apollo missions into outerspace, camera in hand. For him the violent loss, “the unfulfilled promise,” and its mysteries were personal.<br /> <br /> For other high-achieving creators, the blow was more abstract, but its reverberations no less keenly felt. Look between the lines of Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. An immigrant patriarch, ruthlessly building an empire on both sides of the law, with an eye toward enthroning one of his three sons: the Corleones are nothing if not the Kennedys reimagined as mythic Sicilians; Don Vito stands in for Joseph P., who as much made his fortune rum-running as on Wall Street; the highly sexed, lighthearted, and heedless Sonny easily stands in for Jack; Fredo the fuck-up gets what in the 1960s looked like the “Teddy” role; and Michael Corleone, like Robert Kennedy, is the sensitive sufferer turned ruthless. (That Puzo had Kennedys on the brain is evident from his later novel The Fourth K, which imagines a future Kennedy in the White House dealing with a nuclear terror-threat.) Is it any wonder the movie that director Francis Coppola cowrote with Puzo bonded so deeply with the public that it became one of the classics of the age? It was drawing on the deepest imaginative energies of those times.<br /> <br /> Similarly, when Robert Altman was planning Nashville (1975) with writer Joan Tewkesbury, he made a single firm request: “One of the characters has to die.” Tewkesbury then wove a loner with a pistol into that crowded mural, and in the climactic moment before this nowhere-man elects to become an assassin, Altman fills the screen with an American flag, through which the wind sends a solitary ripple. <br /> <br /> Consider too how, after 1964 many sympathetic movie characters die of sudden wounds specifically to the head, in movies as unalike as Easy Rider, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and The Deer Hunter—to name only a few memorable examples, picked at random. Prior to 1963, with the prophetic exception of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), characters only took gunshots in the back, the chest, or out of frame. <br /> <br /> The ghostly impact of our era’s defining trauma is no less Evident. Take these lines of dialogue from two very different matinee fantasies, the first from 2004: “Everything I’ve ever cared about, everything I’ve ever worked for, has been a preparation for a future that no longer exists.” The second was released late last year: “These are dark times, there is no denying. Our world has perhaps faced no greater threat than it does today. But I say this… We, ever your servants, will continue to defend your liberty and repel those forces that seek to take it from you.”<br /> <br /> The latter is from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part I, 2010), adapted by Steve Kloves from J.K. Rowling. The former is from The Day After Tomorrow, written by Roland Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff. In plot and theme these movies have extremely divergent surfaces. One is a coming-of-age story with sorcery mixed in. The other offers an environmental revenge fantasy. Both revel in apocalyptic spectacle, yet each contains intensely expressed sentiments that might not have readily occurred to their authors in any decade but this past one.<br /> <br /> I tripped over these two particular examples by accident while supposedly taking a break from the wide array of movies that are either directly about 9/11 or that reflect its warring consequences across the past decade. The uncanny fact is that the best films since 2001 have either mirrored or processed the events of September 11 or been obliquely answerable to its powerful gravity. Directly or indirectly, the best written films of the past 10 years process the attack’s inevitable consequences of hopeless loss, hysteria, fear, highlevel deceit and war: The 25th Hour (2002), Good Night and Good Luck (2005), Jarhead (2005), Syriana (2005), A Few Days in September (2006), Stop-Loss (2008), The Hurt Locker (2008), Nothing but the Truth (2008), Men Who Stare At Goats (2009), Fair Game (2010), and The Green Zone (2010).<br /> <br /> Each of these is so rich in scope and insight that to name them is to wish there were space to explore all of them in detail, and praise their writers and directors by name.<br /> <br /> “We Are Under Attack, But We Do not Know by Whom” <br /> <br /> The primal terror of that statement—endlessly repeated over the airwaves, on the day—drives the suspense of big-ticket items as outwardly dissimilar as War of the Worlds (2005), The Departed (2006), Taken (2008), State of Play (2009), Edge of Darkness (2010), Knight and Day (2010), Unknown (2011), and Source Code (2011). <br /> <br /> In his novel War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells imagined aliens Landing in an 1898 New Jersey. Updating his daydream to 2005, writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp conjure an organically scary, lived-in sense of the fantastic. Their opening scenes burst with panicked neighbors, responding to mysterious blasts and quizzing one another about what just happened. Director Steven Spielberg meanwhile boosts these prompts literally skyward, so sharply evoking the everyday tedium of a suburban neighborhood— one that just happens to have Manhattan towering mistily at its backyards, from across the river—that the movie’s most relevant source of inspiration is unmistakable.<br /> <br /> William Monahan has been a screenwriter of such consistent excellence this past decade—Kingdom of Heaven (2005); Body of Lies (2008), as well as The Departed and Edge of Darkness—that a laureate position could be christened in his honor: Bard of Our Disorder. <br /> <br /> Although The Departed is based on a 2002 Chinese action picture called Infernal Affairs [written by Alan Mak and Felix Chong] and could easily have been remade as a low-budget police-procedural to sterling if less mythic effect, Monahan actively fulfills its zeitgeist potential. As a native of Massachusetts, he infuses the story’s outlines with a firsthand sense of Boston. The first plane into the Twin Towers was launched out of Boston, and though this is never directly alluded to, Monahan is a storyteller with such a palpable sense of historic grandeur that from the marrow-out he affords the wide vistas of this tale a psychological center of gravity appropriate to America post 9/11. It shapes up as a metaphoric quest to destroy a terrorist—the local crime-lord played by Jack Nicholson hides in plain sight as he dominates both the city at large and its phalanxes of cops and officials with his lawless conspiracies.<br /> <br /> The theme of “We are under attack, but we do not know by whom” applies to the network of spies the crime-lord has planted throughout the police department. The story’s logic thus becomes a relentless game of an eye-for-an-eye that no side can win, and a particularly American brand of helplessness is mercilessly X-rayed as the investigators unwittingly betray their own best men. Competence is disfigured by needless suspicion between allies to the point that Mark Wahlberg’s detective refuses Baldwin’s most invasive queries by telling him: “Feds are like mushrooms. Feed ‘em shit and keep ‘em in the dark.” <br /> <br /> Epic films about the era of the Crusades had been pitched and attached to big stars for decades prior to 9/11 without hope of coming to fruition—“Who cares?” Monahan creates A historic mirror in Kingdom of Heaven that not only reflects but magnifies the religious roots of our present conflicts, without making any one group the bad caste. There are fanatics in his Islamic and Christian camps, and by the end it is fanaticism that has been dramatized as the enemy of humanity—1184 becomes a distant mirror of 9/11. <br /> <br /> (Incidentally, if you have not yet seen the sublime 194 minute “director’s cut” by Ridley Scott, you’ve not seen Monahan’s “writer’s cut” either.)<br /> <br /> Monahan’s later collaboration with director Scott, Body of Lies, holds up a whole hall-of-mirrors to the world of treacheries into which our Byzantine responses to Bin Laden’s attack have plunged us.<br /> <br /> Background Briefing <br /> <br /> Even straight-ahead thrillers—Luc Besson and Robert Kamen’s script for Taken; or Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell’s rival star-vehicle for Liam Neeson, Unknown [from the novel by Didier van Caulewaere]—feel born directly of September 11. Each commences with an attack by persons unknown. So does State of Play, a stop-the-presses newspaper thriller scripted by Matthew Michael Callahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray. So does Patrick O’Neill’s ebulliently written romantic-action comedy Knight and Day, which manages (under the expert direction of James Mangold) to open with a lethal skyjacking that so defies expectations of gravity as to be laugh-out-loud sobering. So for that matter does Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton (2007), whose hero narrowly escapes being blown up at the outset by unknown sources and whose poster proclaims another 9/11-keyed theme: “Truth Can Be Adjusted.” <br /> <br /> In Source Code, written by Ben Ripley and directed by Duncan Jones, a time-traveler attempting to rewrite history by undoing a terrorist attack on American soil, with interestingly unpredictable results, adds an extra layer of 9/11 poignancy to its already fierce tensions. <br /> <br /> The velocities of all these pictures interbreed the traditional beats of “chase-escape” with doubts of who’s behind it. As such they advance a fine tradition whose most notable ancestors are North by Northwest and Three Days of the Condor, but those pictures were novelties without peer in their own times. (The first, written by Ernest Lehmann, merrily sends up 1950s witch-hunt paranoia; the second, adapted by Lorenzo Semple and David Rayfiel from the novel by James Grady, invites the audience to take for granted the post-JFK idea that the American government routinely assassinates Americans, even in the workplace.)<br /> <br /> Border Crossings <br /> <br /> “Truth can be adjusted” is one recurrent subtheme of post 9/11 films. Another might be summed up in the maxim coined in the 1960s by cartoonist Walt Kelly, for his classic comic strip Pogo: We have met the Enemy and he is Us. <br /> <br /> In Sorry, Haters (2005), written and directed by Jeff Stanzler, a New York cabbie who happens to be Muslim finds himself at the mercy of an outwardly well-balanced American woman who has gone quietly but murderously insane over the deaths at the Twin Towers. That her rage is so specifically a response to this particular act of terror makes of her madness a cautionary distillation of our nation’s swoon into war. <br /> <br /> The Visitor (2007), written and directed by Thomas Mc- Carthy, gives us a widower lost in a maze of private grief. His sudden involvement with a pair of homeless immigrants, and his subsequent restoration to an empathy that pulls him out of himself, would have made perfect sense on September 10, 2001—but it would have stopped with the strictly personal. That McCarthy unfolds his tale after the catastrophe ups the stakes into the stratosphere, because immigrants (especially such as his new Muslim friends) have it worlds rougher now. An upsurge of spontaneous identification with the strangers in his apartment directs him into a helpless and outraged confrontation with the bigotries and bureaucratic cruelties to which 9/11 has given rise. <br /> <br /> A number of comedies embraced our contemporary craziness with comparably sarcastic high-energy. Take the Harpo Marxist anarchy of I Heart Huckabees (2004), written by David O. Russell and Jeff Baena, whose hunky fireman (played by Mark Wahlberg) is a wandering beneficiary of the public’s post-catastrophe love for men of his trade. Or sample American Dreemz (2006), written by Paul Weitz, which manages to skewer George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, and Simon Cowell with one hilariously far-reaching kebab. War Inc. (2008), a witty Strangelovean farce written by John Cusack with Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser, and well brought off on an ultra-low budget by director Joshua Seftel, stars Cusack as an assassin-for-hire who serves at the beck and call of a “former vice president, back in the private sector” (Dan Aykroyd, channeling Dick Cheney). The veepee directs him to assassinate an oil oligarch in an aptly named jihad-ridden capital called “Emerald City.” <br /> <br /> Past vs. Post-Op <br /> <br /> “The past is never dead,” as William Faulkner put it: “It’s not even past.” <br /> <br /> By now the day itself has been directly commemorated in a number of films, most unblinkingly by writer-director Paul Greengrass in United 93 (2006), which dramatizes the single sustained revolt by hijacked passengers against Their captors in that fatal hour (others trapped on other flights had neither information nor time to rebel). His mesmerizing account, done without narrative embellishments or recognizable stars, erases every possible distraction against our total empathy as its people rush the cockpit and fight for their freedom, even while their prospects literally nose-dive. In World Trade Center (2006), writer Andrea Berloff movingly traced the remarkable true story of two firemen trapped under the rubble of the South Tower. The firemen are obliged to imagine the calamity, and so are we, making the experience intensely spiritual as well as cathartic.<br /> <br /> How does the great wizard Dumbledore put it to his prize student? “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” <br /> <br /> The tales we tell onscreen are a counternarrative to the “facts” our would-be oppressors incessantly try to impose.<br /> <br /> In Dreams Begin responsibilities <br /> <br /> The morning after Osama bin Laden’s death, after it felt like the whole nation expelled (for a sweet moment) a unified sigh of triumph and relief, the battle for narrative supremacy resumed. The White House—alas, contradicting the admirable cool with which Obama had delivered the first news— put out a variety of confusing reports about the siege on Bin Laden’s compound. Over on the right-wing, Rush Limbaugh’s headline was: “Obama crashes copter.” Critics on the left, such as Michael Moore, wondered aloud if we weren’t betraying an old fashioned American ideal by killing an outlaw without giving him a trial.<br /> <br /> This cauldron of brewing narratives is natural and inevitable, even reassuring. A similar witch’s brew followed the day of 9/11, and our public commentators were so at sea in a swirl of warring facts that the nation was hypnotized into pursuing two wars. We allowed ourselves delusions of triumph (“Mission Accomplished”) but operated without practical hope of victory. <br /> <br /> A near decade ago in Written By, reacting to the psychological fevers that gripped our imaginations after this worlddefining tragedy, I wrote:<br /> <br /> We owe it to ourselves to wrest the National Story out of the hands of the few; to be skeptical of every Grand Narrative the mass media devises; to rebel against being bagged, tagged, and too glibly understood by those who are trying to either love or destroy us. We need to take our cues from the heroic and even antiheroic dead: There is no limit to human possibility. <br /> <br /> Few things give me more pleasure on this tenth anniversary than to look around and realize how many of our fellow storytellers rose to this challenge so blazingly on their own. When we look back in another ten years, the best of the movies we’ve made in this hellish time will surpass in value the work of most of our contemporary historians. <br /> <br /> They’ve only had the facts to deal with, and facts too easily lie.