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Post 9/11 American Cinema
Popular cinema is often said to reflect changing social attitudes and conditions. This essay will evaluate the features of a post 9/11 American cinema with specific reference to United 93 (2006), directed by Paul Greengrass, War of the Worlds (2005), directed by Steven Spielberg, Signs (2002), directed by M. Night Shyamalan and Black Hawk Down (2001), directed by Ridley Scott.
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In order to assess the features of post 9/11 American cinema, it is first important to understand the historical context of post 9/11 American cinema. Therefore, initially this essay will examine the historical background of post 9/11 cinema with specific reference to the September 11th terrorist attack(s) on the United States of America in, 2001 and the ongoing Iraq war, also known as the Second Gulf war, which began on March 20th, 2003.
The reviewer praised Cunningham as giving the movie “a verite look, without emotional tricks like zooming in on fraught moments … The last few minutes inside the planes, the towers and the conference rooms on 9/11 are tastefully handled, though no less chilling. But they’re beside the point. What matters is what happened before and what happened – and didn’t – afterward. An epilogue notes the commissions’ report card, issued last Dec., which found that most of its recommendations — securing weapons of mass destruction, delegating antiterrorism funds by risk — have been carried out badly or not at all. That endnote is the scariest thing in the miniseries.”
The terrorist attack on the United States of America on September 11th, 2001 is certainly the most significant event in understanding the features of post 9/11 American cinema. On September 11th, 2001, beginning at approximately 8:45 a.m., the first of four hijacked airlines (American Airlines Flight 11) struck the north tower of the World Trade Centre in New York, in the first of a series of coordinated terrorist attacks against the United States. At approximately 9:03 a.m., a second hijacked plane (United Airlines Flight 175) struck the south tower of the World Trade Centre and exploded. Furthermore, at about 9:43 a.m., the third hijacked plane (American Airlines Flight 77) hit the Pentagon in Arlington Country, Virginia, near Washington D.C. The south tower of the World Trade Centre collapsed at about 9:58 a.m. and moments later, part of the Pentagon collapsed. At 10:28 a.m. the north tower of the World Trade Centre collapsed and at about 10:48 a.m. the police firmly established that the fourth hijacked plane (United Airlines Flight 93) had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
The September 11th terrorist attacks had a great impact on the United States, subsequently, 2948 people have since been confirmed dead, along with 24 reported dead, 24 reported missing and all of the 19 terrorists’ dead, totalling 3015 deaths. Consequently, this death toll exceeded the casualties suffered by the American military, as a direct result of the Empire of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, which was the last major attack on America. Perhaps what is most significant about the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks is that the casualties of the terrorist attacks were mostly civilians, as opposed to the attack on Pearl Harbour, where the causalities were mostly American military personnel. Furthermore, the September 11th terrorist attack was the first terrorist attack in American history to occur on the mainland of America. Consequently, the outcome of September 11th, 2001 saw a widespread surge of patriotism, where as prior to 9/11, the United States had been divided on cultural issues, for instance, abortion, illegal immigration and healthcare leading to the media and some politicians to describe the United States of America as the “Divided States of America”. In the aftermath of 9/11 American politicians from both the Republicans and the Democrats stressed the need for the American people to work together. Moreover, the Republicans and the Democrats became more cooperative with each other, abandoning their differences to help fight terrorism. This new found unity did last for a while. For instance, many hospitals across the United States were overflowing with people willing to donate their blood to help the injured people from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Furthermore, when the vote came up to authorise the attack against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan, the vote passed the House 420-1 and the Senate 98-0. Additionally, America had International support from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Canada and many other countries worldwide. However, this new found unity would only last for a small time. The neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, including George Bush, wanted to wage war with Iraq and their plan included spreading democracy throughout the Middle East, with the use of force if necessary. The Bush administration assured the American people and the United Nations that Saddam Hussein was constructing chemical and nuclear weapons, which he would then hand over to terrorist organisations. However, if one questioned these claims along with the justification for the invasion of Iraq, one would be labelled as a defector by the Bush administration. Furthermore, the allies of the United States who had helped the United States in the invasion of Afghanistan, but had come to question the justification for the invasion of Iraq and subsequently could not help the United States, were labelled as weak. Consequently, all of a sudden the widespread unity was lost with the invasion of Iraq. From the outset, the Iraq war seemed to be a success, as the American military destroyed the Iraqi resistance and claimed Baghdad. However, it became evident that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found. Consequently, Liberals in the United States branded the Iraq war as an imperialist war and a sequel to the American war with Vietnam. Furthermore, the American military were depicted to be the bad people through the circulation of the images by the media of the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Subsequently, terrorist recruiting went up and Islamic militant groups began killing American military personnel in Iraq. Moreover, many American soldiers began to question the justification for going to war with Iraq and the recruitment for the United States military decreased dramatically.
Hollywood’s relationship with September 11th, 2001 is very complex. Firstly, Hollywood had pre-imagined these images of destruction in previous films, for instance, Armageddon (1998), directed by Michael Bay and Deep Impact (1998), directed by Mimi Leder both discuss the possibility of the destruction of American cities on a large scale. Secondly, Hollywood films like Executive Decision (1996) anticipated the September 11th terrorist attacks. The Arab terrorists in Executive Decision take over a Boeing 747 plane heading for Washington, D.C., with the intention of crashing and destroying the plane in the United States, similarly to the September 11th terrorists.
Moreover, the production process for a mainstream film can take up to three years to complete, therefore some films, for instance, Black Hawk Down (2001) and Pearl Harbour (2001), had already completed the production process before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Consequently, the filmmakers had not been prepared for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and as a result the critical reception of these films changed, for instance, one may have read Pearl Harbour as a film about a direct attack by an enemy on American soil, just like the September 11th terrorist attacks. On the other hand, the filmmakers may have initially intended Pearl Harbour to be an historical World War II film.
Post 9/11 cinema is an area of film studies, which has not been discussed by film scholars considerably, as it can take several years for a film scholar to research and publish a work of literature, therefore, because the 9/11 terrorist attacks only occurred six years ago there has been little time for film scholars to research post 9/11 cinema and publish works on this area of film studies. Consequently, critical reception becomes very significant when assessing the features of a post 9/11 American cinema. Subsequently, this essay will refer to the critical reception on post 9/11 cinema put forward by film critics in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Variety and the Chicago Sun Times in order to assess the features of post 9/11 American cinema.
United 93 (2006), directed by Paul Greengrass, was the first Hollywood feature film to take on the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States. The film begins with a black screen where the voice of one of the hijackers reading from the Koran can be heard. Greengrass chooses not to use any subtitles for the opening dialogue. From the outset, this has connotations of the sense of the “other” within American society and this is a key feature of post 9/11 American cinema. Furthermore, the terrorists in United 93 are already within American society the night before the attack. The terrorists seem to be almost invisible to the American public just as they were before the September 11th attacks. This idea is adapted in War of the Worlds (2005). War of the Worlds was the first of a cycle of allegorical films that discussed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The introduction to the War of the Worlds reads:
“No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st Century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own…An intellect vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes.”
The introduction, narrated by Morgan Freeman has strong connotations of the “intellect vast and cool” been the Al Qaeda terrorist sleeper cells, which were watching America for some time before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
When one first sees the aliens in War of the Worlds, they seem apocalyptic and offensive. However, they are not terrifying at all. Similarly the terrorists in United 93 are not horrifying. They even adopt the western dress sense. However, they only seem to become apocalyptic and offensive once they start hijacking Flight 93. Ebert argues that the terrorists are people of ordinary appearance, going about their business and Greengrass does not depict the terrorists as villains. Furthermore, Ebert maintains that, “The film contains no politics, no theory and no patriotic speeches. We never see the big picture.” Consequently, the audience never seems to fully understand the reasons for the hijacking on United Airlines Flight 93. Similarly, in Signs (2002), the audience does not know the reasons for the attempted alien invasion and likewise in War of the Worlds the attack on the American people by the alien tripods is largely unexplained. Consequently, allegorical films about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, such as Signs and War of the Worlds seem to also suggest with them anti-imperialist messages and this seems to be a feature of post 9/11 cinema. The aliens have no motives for attempting to invade Earth, similarly to the Bush administration which hasn’t explained its motive in great detail for invading Iraq. Comparably, in Black Hawk Down (2001) a Somali businessman informs the American commanding officer, General William F. Garrison that,
“I think you shouldn’t have come here. This is civil war, it’s our war.”
Black Hawk Down, it seems, is an assault on the American need to spread Democracy in the World using force. Moreover, Ebert argues that the implied message of the film Black Hawk Down is that, “…America on that day (October 3, 1993) lost its resolve to risk American lives in distant and obscure struggles and that mindset weakened America’s stance against terrorism.” Consequently, one might argue that this weakness in America’s stance against terrorism, allowed the terrorists to attack America from within America itself. The terrorists in United 93 come from within America but are not American citizens. Furthermore, in War of the Worlds, the aliens had been watching civilisation from under American soil, waiting for the right time to attack civilisation. Todd McCarthy maintains that, “The film (War of the Worlds) exists in the shadow of 9/11 and fears of new enemies bent on nothing less than the total destruction of the West and in particular the United States.” With the problem of terrorism and the threat of biological and nuclear weapons in the procession of North Korea, civilisation lives in dangerous times. Kenneth Turan argues that, “War of the Worlds is a perfect fit for our paranoid, potentially apocalyptic age, a film that considers the possibility, however obliquely, that the world as we know it could end.” Signs also explores the possibility that the world could end. During the film, Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson poses a key question to his brother, Merrill Hess, played by Joaquin Phoenix: “There are two kinds of people, those who believe everything happens for a reason and that we are therefore not alone and those who believe that we live in a metaphysical solitude, our destines governed by nothing more than random chance.” Subsequently, this has connotations that there are people with faith and people without it and the main theme of Signs, Turran argues is the “power and even necessity of faith.” Scott maintains that Signs advances the argument that, “Unless you have faith, you are putting the integrity of your family and the very lives of your children at risk and you no longer deserve to be called Father.” Some conservative politicians in the United States declared after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that people should have faith. This seems to be another feature of post 9/11 cinema. Regarding Signs, Hess is a recent widower, who was so damaged by the death of his wife, that he left the Episcopal priesthood and returned to civilian life. However, in order to save his family Hess has to re-discover is faith. On the other hand, United 93 is a reminder that only humans have religion, general to all cultures and killing has been committed in the name of most religions. United 93 depicts people willing to kill other people, not through dislike or their way of life, but to achieve a goal. The hijackers of United Flight 93 sat amongst their victims. Perhaps one may suggest that, on the other hand George Bush remains detached, subsequently signing numerous orders responsible for deaths on a regular basis. Unlike Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, United 93 doesn’t explore the whereabouts of George Bush that day. The United States government remains absent in United 93 and this focus is intentionally narrow. Manohla Dargis argues that, “United 93 is a sober reminder of the breakdown in leadership on the morning of September 11th.” Moreover, the government remains absent in War of the Worlds, Signs and Black Hawk Down. On the contrary, these films are more interested in focusing on the events as they unfold and the actions of individuals. For instance, in Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott is primarily interested in displaying the situation as it unfolded on the ground and in the air in Somalia. Furthermore, McCarthy argues that, “the men are kept anonymous and interchangeable to further the point that this is what war is, that it has always been thus and always be.” Moreover, Steven Spielberg in War of the Worlds primarily focuses on the response of a father and his two children to an alien invasion. McCarthy maintains that, “Spielberg paints a portrait of a devastated humanity with every man for himself opportunism.” Similarly to Spielberg in War of the Worlds, M.Night Shyamalan in Signs primarilyfocuses on the response of a father and his two children to an alien invasion.
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Similarly to Black Hawk Down, United 93 is specifically interested in presenting the situation as it unfolded on September 11th. Dargis maintains that, “the jagged camerawork and the rushed, overlapping shards of naturalistic dialogue, invests his [Greengrass] storytelling with a visceral, combat zone verisimilitude.” Greengrass did not use star actors in United 93, therefore none of the actors have a recognisable face. Consequently, Turran argues that, “the performers look so ordinary…that without specialised knowledge they can’t be told apart from one another.”
United 93 carries a dedication, “to the memory of all those who lost their lives on September 11th, 2001”. Subsequently, this dedication reminds the audience of our common humanity. In the present day, reports from the ongoing Iraq conflict fail to count the bombers in the casualty reports. On the other hand, War of the Worlds (2005), it seems, shows us how fragile humanity is. Turran maintains that Spielberg poses the following question: “Is the ultimate fantasy an invasion from outer space, or is it the survival of the human race?” Similarly, M. Night Shyamalan, it seems, puts forwards the same question in Signs.
Post 9/11 American cinema is an area of film studies where the emergence of further literature on post 9/11 American cinema will allow film scholars to assess the features of post 9/11 American cinema in more detail. However, at this moment in time, the literature on post 9/11 American cinema is minimal. Consequently, critical reception is very significant in assessing the features of post 9/11 American cinema. However, film critics often have only one or two days to formulate opinions, therefore film critics do not explore in detail the features of post 9/11 American cinema, which makes it difficult
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