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How Movies Have Shaped The Perception Of 9/11

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Like being in a movie - that's a phrase so many people use to describe what happened on September 11, 2001. Critic Bob Mondello admits to saying it himself, but he notes that actual movies were slow to respond to the sights and sounds of that day and timid when they did.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: That horrific morning played out for most of us on screens, just not movie screens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, my God. Look at that explosion.

MONDELLO: The bright sunshine of a clear Manhattan day marred in TV images by an ugly smudge of black smoke pouring from the World Trade Center's North Tower.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh.

MONDELLO: Eighteen minutes later, the shock of a second plane hitting the South Tower.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A huge explosion now raining debris...

MONDELLO: And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We'd better get out of the way.

AARON BROWN: Good Lord.

MONDELLO: ...The unthinkable, seared into a generation's consciousness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: There are no words.

MONDELLO: The Towers obliterated in a real-life spectacle that rendered almost obscene any fictions Hollywood might have hoped to offer up, so Hollywood didn't offer them up for half a decade. This is not the way the film industry usually operates. It tends to lean into news events, especially violent ones.

When a team of Israeli commandos rescued a plane full of hostages held by terrorists at Entebbe airfield in 1976, filmmakers rushed two TV movies on air in just a few months, one with Charles Bronson...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RAID ON ENTEBBE")

CHARLES BRONSON: (As Dan Shomron) Hold your fire until we hit the terminal.

MONDELLO: ...The other with an all-star cast that included Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Elizabeth Taylor.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MONDELLO: Israeli filmmakers also moved quickly and got rewarded with an Oscar nomination for their thriller about the raid. A few years later, a Chuck Norris-Lee Marvin action flick arrived as well.

It's certainly a good thing that none of that happened in the wake of 9/11. Whether you attribute Hollywood's uncharacteristic restraint to respect and sensitivity or cold business calculation, filmmakers did not rush to recreate the horrors of that day. In fact, a full five years later, many thought it was too soon when Paul Greengrass made "United 93"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNITED 93")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We're going to take back the airplane.

MONDELLO: ...About the hijacked 9/11 flight that crashed in Pennsylvania after its passengers stormed the cockpit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNITED 93")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Take the cockpit. We're going to die (ph).

MONDELLO: There's a difference, of course. The Entebbe crisis ended in a way the film industry knew how to embrace - successful commandos, rescued hostages, dead terrorists. Nothing about 9/11 offered that sort of closure. What did happen in Hollywood, though, was unprecedented. The Trade Center towers had been erased from the New York skyline, and filmmakers began to erase them from movies and television, too. Background images of the towers got scrubbed from the opening credits of "The Sopranos" and "Law And Order: Special Victims Unit."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOKE UP THIS MORNING")

ALABAMA 3: (Singing) Got yourself a gun.

MONDELLO: In the "Sex And The City" credits, the towers that had backed Sarah Jessica Parker's name in the first two seasons were replaced after the attacks by the Empire State Building. Directors of movies, then in production, reconceived whole sequences to avoid reminding audiences of the tragedy. The first "Spider-Man" film was to have featured a bank robber's helicopter getting caught in a web the superhero had spun between the Twin Towers. Before it was released, images of the Trade Center were cut from the film, though there's still a reflection of the towers in the hero's visor in one shot. The effect was poignant in an unexpected way for those who noticed it, almost as if it had been a remembered reflection in a tear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Even older films made adjustments. For the 20th anniversary rerelease of Steven Spielberg's "E.T.," an offscreen line about a Halloween costume...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ET THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL")

DEE WALLACE: (As Mary Taylor) You are not going as a terrorist.

MONDELLO: ...Was revised to say, you are not going as a hippie. And this didn't just come from Hollywood. Before the release of the second "Lord Of The Rings" film in 2002, its producers received petitions arguing that they should change the title from "The Two Towers," never mind that J. R. R. Tolkien had published his Middle Earth book of that title in 1954, 17 years before the World Trade Center was built.

This was the denial stage of grief, writ literal, a willful blindness, a turning away from the pain we all felt. Where in the Cold War, filmmakers had conjured up cold warriors, after 9/11, if they needed villains, they conjured up domestic terrorists, narcoterrorists, ecoterrorists going out of their way to avoid Middle Eastern terrorists, sometimes way out of their way.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUM OF ALL FEARS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) A neo-fascist named Dressler bought an A-bomb on the black market.

MONDELLO: The Jack Ryan thriller "Sum Of All Fears" turned the Arab nuclear terrorist, specified by Tom Clancy's novel, into neo-Nazis who were pretending to be Russians. Another Jack...

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

MONDELLO: ...Jack Bauer...

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

MONDELLO: ...Dealt with terrorists on TV's "24," beginning just a few weeks after the Trade Center attack. But that first season, the producers had set the action far from the East Coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "24")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) The following takes place between midnight and 1 a.m. on the day of the California presidential primary.

MONDELLO: And the bad guy was a Serbian warlord, which kept echoes to a minimum. Even so, across its nine seasons, the show's portrayal of Bauer's interrogation techniques got abusive enough that a West Point general met with the producers to ask them not to promote illegal behavior. Yes, there were a few films that dealt with reality - "The Hurt Locker" with its bomb squads in Iraq, "Zero Dark Thirty" with a real-life mission specifically aimed at 9/11 closure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ZERO DARK THIRTY")

JESSICA CHASTAIN: (As Maya Harris) Bin Laden is there, and you're going to kill him for me.

MONDELLO: Mostly, though, Hollywood leaned heavily into what it does best - escapism. The entire Marvel Cinematic Universe was born after 9/11 with its first movie's armsmaker-turned-superhero, Iron Man, pointedly constructing the suit that gives him power in an Afghan cave while held hostage by terrorists who were not called Taliban or al-Qaida.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IRON MAN")

SHAUN TOUB: (As Ho Yinsen) They speak Arabic, Urdu, Dari, Pashto, Mongolian, Farsi, Russian.

ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Tony Stark) Who are these people?

TOUB: (As Ho Yinsen) They are your loyal customers. They call themselves the Ten Rings.

MONDELLO: But the year was 2008, and the subtext wasn't even subtext. Iron Man blasted them all away.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

MONDELLO: And he and his super pals spent the next decade and a half battling threats designed to be so large and so preposterous they wouldn't reopen real wounds - threats from other worlds, other universes, threats that could credibly or incredibly be handled as opposed to the one that filmmakers dodged and avoided, arguably with good reason. What could Hollywood possibly say about 9/11 that would make a difference?

I keep remembering a passage in a play written just after the attacks, Alan Bennett's "The History Boys," which premiered onstage in 2004 and was filmed two years later. The dialogue isn't about 9/11, but it resonated with what was in the air at the time. A British professor is guiding his history class through a cemetery for soldiers killed in World War I, looking at monuments that he says have the purpose of silencing talk of what happened, of veiling a truth that would otherwise be too great to bear.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HISTORY BOYS")

STEPHEN CAMPBELL MOORE: (As Irwin) 'Cause so many of our people died. It's not lest we forget. It's lest we remember. See; that's what all this is about - the memorials, the cenotaph, the two-minute silence - because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

MONDELLO: The students he's talking to are about the age of the first generation that's now grown up in a post-9/11 world. They argue that they won't forget, that poetry and the arts will keep memories alive. But audiences who are older know better. As a society, we do forget. And in the case of 9/11, we've been trying to forget almost from the first moment. Hollywood's aided in the effort - protecting our sensibilities and its profits - by airbrushing the Towers from films and TV shows, eliminating all but the most distant images of that tragic day, even in news remembrances.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Commemorating, we do. But two minutes of silence? Try two decades.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.