9/11 reflections: 4 movies from different perspectives

NICHOLAS CAGE shouts “Run to the elevators!” to rescue workers as the twin towers are about to collapse on 9/11 in Oliver Stone’s thought-provoking movie World Trade Center.Television is pouring hours of 9/11 programming across the airwaves. From major networks to History Channel, National Geographic and Animal Planet, families won’t miss this anniversary. That’s not necessarily a good thing readers are telling us. You want alternatives. “Thank you, ReadTheSpirit, for taking a fresh look!” wrote one reader. Another wrote, “I guess I just won’t turn on TV for two weeks.”

For the most part over the past decade, Americans have not been eager to buy books or go see movies about the terrorist attacks and the wars that followed. Perhaps the impact of 9/11 was too painful to revisit. So, at our readers’ request, we invited author and film critic Ed McNulty to recommend some 9/11-related movies that will help with personal reflection—and small-group discussion.

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Best 9/11 Movies for Discussion

By Film Critic and Author Ed McNulty

From dozens of choices now on DVD and Blu-ray, I recommend four films to watch with family and friends. Two films focus on 9/11: Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (not to be confused with the inferior, made-for-TV movie called Flight 93). Then, two other films look at years before and after the attacks: Steven Spielberg’s Munich and Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty.

Best 9/11 Movies: Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center

World Trade Center is available on DVD from Amazon. It also is available now in a two-disc Blu-ray edition from Amazon. While millions of us watched in shock and disbelief, rescue teams and emergency-room personnel in New York City were preparing for a busy time of attending to survivors of the falling towers. Most of those professionals had little to do that day: Only 20 survivors were brought out of the site alive. This is the story of two of them, and of those who anxiously stood by during the hours when their loved ones’ fate was unknown—and of some of the brave people who risked their lives to see that they would be extricated from the dangerous pile of rubble.

Oliver Stone directs this script, based on the accounts given by those most closely involved: John and Donna McLoughlin and Will and Allison Jimeno. Nicholas Cage plays Sgt. McLoughlin, a veteran officer who earlier had helped rescue people after the 1993 blast and fire at the World Trade Center. Over the years, he also helped perfect rescue eqiupment and procedures—so, on 9/11, he led a team of men who went into the World Trade Center just before the collapse. When the towers began to fall, McLoughlin knew that elevator shafts were among the strongest structures in the building. Soon, he found himself buried up to his shoulders at the lowest level with Jimeno pinned somewhere above him.

The two men might have perished had it not been for a man in Connecticut who felt moved by prayer to drive down to Ground Zero and assist. That man found another to help him with his search of the wreckage and, thanks to their persistence, the trapped officers were found. That’s not a spoiler, because their ordeal in the dangerous pile of rubble is far from over. Oliver Stone shows admirable restraing in depicting the horror of the event. The film is not easy to watch, but it may also provide a healing balm for those who wonder where God was on that awful day.

Best 9/11 Movies: Paul Greengrass’ United 93

Currently, United 93 is available on DVD and Amazon also has United 93 on Blu-ray. Don’t confuse this film with the made-for-TV Flight 93, which is inferior when compared to this far more compelling movie by Paul Greengrass, the director of two of the Bourne suspense films. As in the Bourne films, Greengrass’ use of handheld cameras and quick cuts make us feel a part of the action. There could be no truer, heart-felt memorial to the brave passengers and crew of the United flight that wound up crashing in Pennsylvania than this superb theatrical film.

We all know the end of this film, so the power of the movie is in the storytelling. Roughly half of the film takes places in various flight control centers where professionals are jolted out of an ordinary morning into the biggest crisis of their lives—and the other half takes place aboard the flight.

One theme to watch from start to finish is the way Greengrass uses prayer to link people—from perpetrators to victims. The film begins with a dark screen as we hear one of the hijackers praying for his group’s mission. From the opening scene, we are reminded of religion’s power and its danger. Then, watch for a remarkable sequence when Greengrass cuts back and forth between all kinds of people throughout the plane praying. You’ll have no shortage of discussion when it’s over.

Best 9/11 Movies: Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty

At this point, Land of Plenty is only available on DVD, even though director Wim Wenders has fans of his work all around the world after such classics as Wings of Desire, a startlingly fresh view of angels among us. There are no angels in Land of Plenty, although we discover a lot of unexpected grace before this drama ends. The movie shows us a snapshot of post-9/11 America through two very different characters. Paul (John Diehl) is a paranoid veteran of the Vietnam War whose post-traumatic stress is reawakened by the 9/11 attacks until he becomes convinced that Muslims living in America are trying to destroy the U.S. He sinks deep into conspiracy theories and even equips an old van with surveillance gear. The other main character is his 20-year-old niece Lana (Michelle Williams), who flies back to the U.S. after having lived overseas for many years with her missionary parents.

Throughout the film, we watch Lana’s prayers for the tragically broken situation she finds both in the streets of Los Angeles and in her own fragmented family. She is a veteran herself of mission work around the world, and Lana takes a job at a soup kitchen run by a local pastor (Wendell Pierce from HBO’s The Wire). Lana is dismayed by the changes she sees in the land of her birth. The streets of LA she observes are far different from the ones usually shown in Hollywood films. The drama turns on whether this paranoid uncle and his compassionate niece can possibly reunite, especially after a homeless man who appears to be Muslim is killed in a drive-by shooting near the soup kitchen.

Unlike either of the first two 9/11 movies in this list, this is not a movie driven by suspenseful action. Despite the tragic shooting, this is a film largely driven by the surprising power of grace. Land of Plenty is perfectly designed for church groups to discuss.

Best 9/11 Movies: Steven Spielberg’s Munich

DIRECTOR STEVEN SPIELBERG talks to viewers in a special DVD introduction about his intentions in directing the movie Munich.At this time, Munich is only available on DVD. Working closely with Steven Spielberg were screenwriters Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (Forest Gump). They based their script on George Jonas’ book Vengeance, which is the true story of a special Israeli squad assigned by Prime Minister Gold Meir to track down and kill PLO leaders believed responsible for the attack at the Munich Olympics in 1972 that murdered 11 Israeli athletes.

Because of his compassionate portrayal of characters in this drama, Spielberg took a good deal of heat from pro-Israeli critics. In the DVD, he appears in a special introduction to explain his motives: “Make no mistake. I am not attacking Israel with this film. … This film is an attempt to look at policies Israel shares with the rest of the world and to understand why a country feels a best defense against a certain kind of violence is counter violence. And we try to understand this as filmmakers through empathy because that’s what you do—you extend empathy in every single direction because you can’t understand the human motivation without empathy. This movie is not an argument for nonresponse. What this move is showing is that a response that might be the right response is still one that confronts you with some very difficult issues. … It’s the unintended results that are some of the worst and that are going to ultimately bedevil us.

That statement alone may explain why I have included Munich in this list of 9/11 films. But, there are more direct connections with 9/11. Spielberg completed Munich in 2005. In the film’s final scene, we see two characters—including the main Israeli agent behind hunting down the PLO officials—standing in Brooklyn and discussing the future. The two characters take a walk along the East River and, as they talk, the camera shows us the Manhattan skyline. There is the Empire State building. And, as the two continue to walk, we see the United Nations building. Eventually, we see the World Trade Center, still standing at that point. As Spielberg indicates in his new DVD introduction, there are many issues to discuss after Munich.

Care to read more from Edward McNulty?

    (Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)

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