Movies Are My Life
Rebirth, a touching, uplifting 9/11 movie, gets its Houston moment: Why you needto watch it & others
I was at home on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, working in my office on something impossibly trivial, a review of a silly movie, when I got the email from a friend: “Turn on your TV now. Terrorists have flown planes into the World Trade Center.”
So I went to my den, clicked my remote, and started to watch. First CNN, then MSNBC, then ABC, NBC, CBS, MTV, ESPN. Everything, anything.
Very soon, I started to cry. And then I got good and goddamned pissed off.
And then, as soon as it became clear who was responsible, I got scared.
Not that I felt frightened by al-Qaeda, you understand. Well, OK, maybe a bit frightened. Maybe very frightened. But I was more scared by the prospect of something else. Three years earlier, I’d seen an unfortunately prescient movie called The Siege, in which hundreds of Arab-Americans were rounded up and held in detention camps as possible threats after a series of terrorist attacks in New York. Could this happen now, in real life?
For many, Rebirth's primary attraction will be Whitaker’s unprecedented use of multiyear time-lapse photography to chart the construction of 7 World Trade Center, the first structure to rise from the rubble of Ground Zero.
That possibility was so troubling — so plausible — that I interrupted my TV vigil to drive a few blocks from my home to a Blockbuster store, the rent a copy of The Siege — so I could show it to my History of Film class at Houston Community College a few days later. “I want you to think about this one,” I told my students. “I want you to ask yourselves: Will we be so angry, and so scared, that we’ll wind up doing something like this?”
Filmmaker Jim Whitaker had a much different and, I will admit, far more practical response to the catastrophe of 9/11. Within days of the terrible events, Whitaker — then president of motion pictures at Imagine Productions in Hollywood — started work on Rebirth, the extraordinary documentary that will be screened Friday at Discovery Green as part of the Houston Remembers 9/11: An Evening of Remembrance and Unity program.
For many, the film’s primary attraction will be Whitaker’s unprecedented use of multiyear time-lapse photography to chart the construction of 7 World Trade Center, the first structure to rise from the rubble of Ground Zero. But for others (including yours truly) Rebirth is enthralling, even uplifting, because of the interviews Whitaker conducted over the course of the past decade with 9/11 survivors — people who lost friends, loved ones and fellow first responders on the day the Twin Towers fell, or were injured themselves during the conflagration.
As my Variety colleague John Anderson has admiringly noted, “Whitaker erects a unique monument to memory, love, the resilience of guilt and the persistence of life” with the tapestry he weaves from those interviews.
Rebirth earns a place of honor among the very finest nonfiction features that have been made about 9/11 and its aftermath. As for dramatic films on the subject, here is a purely subjective guide to four of the best, all well worth watching during the next few days as we mark the 10th anniversary of the day that changed all of us, as individuals and as Americans, forever.
United 93 – When trailers for director Paul Greengrass’ speculative docudrama first appeared in theaters in 2006, some moviegoers reportedly shouted at the screen: “Too soon!” But the film wound up winning the hearts and minds of critics and moviegoers with its meticulously detailed, scrupulously understated real-time account of bravery and tragedy during the final flight of United 93, the only one of four terrorist-hijacked airliners that didn’t reach its intended target — thanks to an impulsive counterattack by desperate passengers — on 9/11.
Greengrass enhanced the overall verisimilitude by casting mostly little-known actors — and, in a few cases, actual participants in the real-life events, including FAA operations manager Ben Sliney.
World Trade Center – Anyone expecting an overtly political and/or hyperbolically stylized 9/11 movie from the chronically controversial Oliver Stone had to be surprised, and perhaps relieved, by his rivetingly intense but respectfully low-key 2006 drama about two Port Authority cops (exceptionally well-played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña) who struggle to survive beneath tons of debris after the collapse of the Twin Towers.
A scene in which Peña’s Will Jimeno is comforted by a vision of Jesus Christ — which Stone, to his credit, presents without a trace of wink-wink irony — might seem like a melodramatic flourish. In interviews, however, the real Will Jimeno indicated that, hey, his religious faith really did provide him with solace and inspiration during his ordeal.
25th Hour – Spike Lee’s furiously melancholy drama about life and dread in post-9/11 New York (released in late 2002, scarcely a year after the attacks) is nominally about a recklessly feckless drug dealer’s final hours of freedom before turning himself in to serve a seven-year prison sentence. But it’s really about being rudely awakened from self-absorption, and being forced to confront the unimaginable.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in a brilliantly sustained scene in a luxury apartment overlooking Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers used to stand. In front of a window that offers a painfully vivid view of night-shift workers clearing debris, two of the dealer’s friends (Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman) discuss the upcoming imprisonment of their former high-school classmate. Lee doesn’t try to forge a direct connection between the fate of a convicted drug dealer and the aftermath of an epochal terrorist attack.
Instead, he's merely implying — cunningly, dispassionately — that the memory of 9/11, and the paranoia it inspired, still hangs heavy in the air like a poisonous gas, subtly (and, sometimes, not-so-subtly) influencing and affecting people even as they go about their narrowly focused, self-centered lives.
The Guys – Faithfully adapted from an acclaimed stage play by Anne Nelson that debuted off-Broadway just three months after 9/11, director Jim Simpson’s no-frills drama (which premiered Sept. 11, 2002 at the Toronto Film Festival) poses the question that many playwrights and filmmaker have grappled with throughout the past decade: How can any artist adequately respond to a tragedy as enormous and traumatic as the Twin Towers attack?
In a mesmerizing monologue, Weaver demands that God negotiate with her to reverse the fate of the firefighters: “I want them back. All of them. That’s all I’ll settle for.”
By writing her play in the first place, of course, Nelson provided her own answer. But in that play, an idealistic editor (Sigourney Weaver, Simpson’s wife and artistic collaborator) is troubled by painful feelings of inadequacy as she helps a NYFD captain (Anthony LaPaglia) prepare eulogies for the many firefighters under his command whose bodies are still lost amid the WTC wreckage. The editor helps the captain do right by his men — but the deeply moving final scenes suggest that, deep down, she remains convinced that she hasn’t done nearly enough. Because, really, who could?
In a mesmerizing monologue, Weaver demands that God negotiate with her to reverse the fate of the firefighters: “I want them back. All of them. That’s all I’ll settle for.” Trouble is, she admits, “I just . . . I just have nothing to bring to the table.”
By the way: You remember that silly movie I mentioned? The one I was writing a review about when I got the bad news? It was, believe it or not, Big Trouble, a comedy that features a scene in which characters slip a suitcase-size nuclear weapon past lax airport security guards. It was originally supposed to be released on Sept. 21, 2001.
But within hours of the Twin Towers collapse — and other terrorist attacks on the same day — Touchstone Pictures announced that the opening date would be pushed back to the following April.
I had seen Big Trouble at a press screening on Sept. 10, 2001. I eventually finished my review, but it took a while.