SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It’s been too soon for 10 years now.
Big-screen dramatizations of Sept. 11, 2001, and its sociopolitical aftermath have failed to draw significant audiences despite Academy Awards, big stars and critical acclaim.
Ten years out, America has yet to experience a Sept. 11-related critical and box-office hit in the manner of “The Best Years of Our Lives” or “The Deer Hunter,” classic films tied to U.S. conflicts.
Audiences have not rejected Sept. 11-related films entirely. But they favored Michael Moore’s provocative documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” and Steven Spielberg’s Sept. 11-redolent fantasy “War of the Worlds” over Hollywood dramatizations of real events in “United 93” and “World Trade Center” and fictional dramas with Sept. 11 backdrops.
The worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil also brought an unprecedented degree of news coverage and disturbing video footage. The idea of re-experiencing such images on a big screen seemed to keep audiences away from the first narrative films to tackle the subject matter.
The 2002 film “The Guys,” in which Anthony LaPaglia’s firehouse captain must write eulogies for firefighters killed on Sept. 11, never saw wide release. “25th Hour,” Spike Lee’s elegiac 2002 film in which a drug dealer (Edward Norton) mourns his devastated city and his freedom on the eve of going to prison, barely registered at the box office.
“As filmmakers, we are driven to tell stories about markers in life — death, birth, love,” said John Mounier, a documentary filmmaker, longtime New Yorker and now academic director of digital film at Sacramento’s Art Institute.
“I think (Sept. 11) became a marker for everybody. I think that sometimes things are so intense that they just need more time to sort of settle. … The films that came out early on probably suffered from people not being able to watch them.”
Film viewers more easily accepted documentaries made just after Sept. 11, Mounier said, because Sept. 11 is “something we have such a personal connection to that any kind of dramatization of it was kind of insulting.”
Five years after the World Trade Center attacks, Americans still did not appear fully ready for the Hollywood treatment.
“United 93,” a real-time look at the flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers resisted the plane’s hijackers, and “World Trade Center,” an Oliver Stone film based on the true story of two police officers who survived the towers’ collapse, generated only modest business in 2006. This was despite both films being lauded for their respectfulness, and “United 93” for its overall greatness.
“Neither did the kind of business that makes studios want to make more” movies like them, said Gitesh Pandya of the box-office website Boxofficeguru.com.
If audiences were wary of Sept. 11 movies, they showed a true aversion toward Hollywood movies linked to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and other aspects of the aftermath of Sept. 11.
The highest-profile Iraq-themed film, 2009’s best picture Oscar winner “The Hurt Locker,” took in only about $16 million theatrically. But the low-budget film was a hit compared with the Iraq-themed home-front dramas “In the Valley of Elah” (2007) and “Stop-Loss” (2008).
A trio of Middle East-set films released in 2007 flopped rather spectacularly: The Robert Redford-Tom Cruise-Meryl Streep Afghanistan war-themed “Lions for Lambs,” the Reese Witherspoon-Jake Gyllenhaal movie “Rendition,” which questioned U.S. interrogation practices, and “The Kingdom,” which imagined a terrorist attack on a U.S. housing complex in Saudi Arabia.
Recent Middle East-set Hollywood films have been “box-office poison,” said Stephen Prince, Virginia Tech film professor and author of the 2009 book “Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism.”
The failure of the 2007 Middle East films “is interesting, because at that point, public opinion had turned against the (Iraq) war, and most of these movies were very critical of the war,” Prince said. “So, on the one hand, films were kind of in sync with what people were thinking and feeling. But people still didn’t want to see them.”
Audience reluctance might have derived, Prince said, from “the feeling that the events were not controllable. That no matter what we might think or feel or what films one might see, there still is no control to be had over this event. … The (Iraq) war just seemed to grind on forever, and of course we still have troops over there.”
TV has been more amenable to content addressing what Prince deems “the age of terrorism.” Shows taking on such themes included “24” and the New York City-set firefighter dramedy “Rescue Me.”
“It seems as if people were much more comfortable contemplating these issues from inside their homes,” Prince said.
The movie industry also has changed dramatically, Prince said, since a 1970s cinematic heyday when studios sank money and energy into challenging material such as “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now,” and audiences responded in kind.
Today’s audiences, hit with the double whammy of years-long wars and an iffy economy, seek relief and escapism when they go to the movies.
“People don’t want to pay to be depressed again,” box-office analyst Pandya said.
Hollywood, ruled by first-weekend grosses and the bottom line, aims to please with big-budget films set in “more alternative worlds and fantasy worlds,” Prince said.
Images evoking Sept. 11 usually arrived on screen indirectly, via “Cloverfield,” a popular 2008 monster movie that laid waste to Manhattan, or 2007’s “The Dark Knight,” which branded Heath Ledger’s Gotham City-taunting The Joker a terrorist.
“The industry proved much more comfortable dealing with terrorism at the global box office in terms of metaphor,” Prince said. “So you have a movie like ‘The Dark Knight,’ which is very much influenced by 9/11, but all of that is subtext in an action-adventure story.”
Subtext also underscored “Good Night, and Good Luck,” the 2005 film through which director George Clooney chronicled TV newsman Edward R. Murrow’s public opposition to McCarthyism. The period movie’s black-and-white style smoothed the way for the film’s message that oppressive governmental officials always should be challenged, regardless of era. The picture grossed four times its $7.5 million budget.
A film with “an element of the public discourse is easier to take with displacements,” said Leo Braudy, a University of Southern California professor and author of books on such show-business topics as the phenomenon of fame and the Hollywood sign.
Couching sociopolitical commentary in subtext goes back to Errol Flynn, Braudy said.
Before the United States entered World War II, studios were reluctant to let filmmakers weigh in on the war because they feared alienating the vital German movie market, Braudy said.
Except Warner Bros., which had been kicked out of Germany. The studio made the anti-Nazi 1939 film “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” as well as films that sneaked in anti-German interventionist messages.
“‘Robin Hood’ was an interventionist film,” Braudy said with a laugh about the Flynn favorite. In 1940’s “The Sea Hawk,” pirate Flynn invades Spanish ships and “talks explicitly about the Spanish empire and tyranny” as code for the Nazi regime.
World War II films, in text or subtext, could be more narratively uncomplicated — and perhaps more satisfying to viewers — than today’s war films because the enemy was clearly defined.
“The idea of global terrorism … presents a narrative problem for filmmakers,” Braudy said. “There is no front line. ‘United 93’ and ‘World Trade Center’ are less about who did it and what we did to them than our indomitability. ‘Yes, we have been injured, yes, people have died, but we still have the American spirit.’ What is missing is the known.”
A fear of the unknown that has pervaded the American consciousness since Sept. 11 might be abating, Prince said.
“We are sort of in this curious period where people fear another attack, but there is also this kind of complacency that has set in,” he said. “As time goes on, if another attack doesn’t occur, I think it is more likely to see Hollywood touching (Sept. 11) again.”
“Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal already are working on a film, scheduled for a 2012 release, about the operation behind the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Future films about Sept. 11 or its aftermath might even be box-office successes, Pandya said.
“We have seen stranger things happen,” he said, noting that “Black Swan,” a psychological thriller involving an unhinged ballerina, did not seem destined to top $100 million in grosses.
“Just because you have a film about the Iraq war or Sept. 11 doesn’t mean it is going to (flop). It depends on timing, how good the film is, and how well it is marketed.”
In the meantime, Mounier, the former New Yorker, takes comfort in older films.
Story line does not matter as much as skyline.
The World Trade Center towers “were a point where you could orient yourself in the city,” Mounier said. “Now I have a little secret thrill when I see a film shot in New York, and see the towers. It makes me really excited and happy.”