The sign outside the fire hall in Malton, just near Toronto’s Pearson airport, read “Remember 9-11.” It was just a couple of days since the 8th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but I was pleased – and somewhat surprised – that someone was still making the effort.
I was in my late thirties on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, just two months from my wedding day, and for the first time I could understand what previous generations were talking about when they insisted that they’d never forget what they were doing when they heard about Pearl Harbor, or the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And like most people dealing with horror and shock, I had an inappropriate reaction.
One of the first things that came to my mind was “How long before they make a movie out of this?” To be fair, I’ve spent most of my adult life reviewing movies, books, music and television, so my speculation was largely professional, but it has been fascinating to see what kind of reaction 9-11 has prompted from the people who make film and TV – and how little of it there’s been.
You can rationalize the somewhat muted response to the anniversary of the attacks this year by noting that eight years hardly seems like a milestone; one presumes that everyone is waiting for the 10 year anniversary – so much more rounded and suggestive of historical gravitas – to explore the significance of the day. Here in Canada, only CBC Newsworld, the national broadcaster’s cable news specialty channel, saw fit to commemorate the day, with a screening of 102 Minutes That Changed America, a 2-hour documentary produced by the History Channel in the U.S. last year, and a re-broadcast of their 9/11 Conspiracy Files show, which gave taxpayer-subsidized voice to the “Truther” movement that insists that the American government, not al-Qaeda, was behind the attacks.
Underwhelming, to be sure, but probably the most timely and realistic commemoration of 9/11, inasmuch as it paints a telling portrait of how the media, at least, regards the day. On the one hand we have the History Channel production: a straightforward retelling of the morning of the attacks, woven together solely from news and amateur footage, solemnly presented without narration or retrospective interviews.
Most of the film and television produced since 9/11 hasn’t strayed far from documentary; even United 93, director Paul Greengrass’ feature film about the “fourth plane,” and probably the best fictional treatment of the subject so far, is little more than a re-creation of the hijacking, only slightly more glossy than those produced for cable channels like Discovery and National Geographic in the wake of the attacks.
According to recent polls – and here you have to examine your own faith in polls – up to a third of Americans believe that their own government had a part, either passively or intimately, in the 9/11 attacks. Almost any Google search that includes “9/11” will return a wealth of “Truther” websites up front. Loathe as any reasonable person is to address lunacy – it only dignifies the lunatic, and forces you to abandon common sense to their funhouse version of logic – these are sobering facts, and the recent scandal surrounding Van Jones, Barack Obama’s short-lived “green czar” and sometime Truther, proves that holding these views doesn’t bar you from polite society – or proximity to the highest government office.
We get the culture we deserve, so it’s probably fitting that, eight years on, our reaction to 9/11 is characterized, in movies and TV at least, by either sober but increasingly ritual contemplation of the facts, or seething if sometimes unconvincing paranoia. We might have to wait for that 10th anniversary for a really profound, creative response, or maybe even longer. Until then, the most fitting reaction I’ve seen all these years later was in the form of plastic letters outside a fire hall.