Where Are the War Movies?

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On that bright, beautiful morning, Donald Kirby Ross considered himself a lucky man. An orphan raised in foster homes, Ross had found a true home in uniform; his job gave him a mission. He had been dating a college girl, Helen, and falling in love. Tomorrow would be his 31st birthday.

But when the surprise attack of planes struck the edifice, Don Ross didn't think about the future. He ran to his station, where he and his men worked to keep the electricity on in the giant structure. Then a blast of white-hot smoke whipped through a ventilation shaft and hit Ross full in the face, blinding him. He ordered everyone else out as, for 15 minutes, he struggled to keep the power running. When he had nearly finished the job, he collapsed. He was dragged from his station, but when he heard that smoke was filling another room at temperatures near 140 degrees, he returned, telling no one he'd been blinded, feeling his way down a corridor to rescue the men inside. He emerged from the room through deadly chemical smoke, carrying on his shoulders the body of a prostrate comrade, before he finally fell unconscious.

Don Ross was a Warrant Machinist on the U.S.S. Nevada in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed the American fleet and triggered World War II. Ross' valor, commemorated on homeofheroes.com, is the stuff of movie legend. (He did survive, regain his sight and marry his girlfriend.) But Hollywood didn't rush to make a stirring drama from his story, or from any aspect of that awful day in Hawaii (though the following year John Ford did direct a documentary, December 7th, that got limited release in theaters). Dec. 7, 1941, was a day that would live in infamy, but not very much on film. Instead, over the 3-1/2-year span of the rest of the war, the dream factory mobilized to manufacture hundreds of movies about tough soldiers fighting the good fight abroad, and strong women bearing up at home.

How different is Sept. 11, 2001, the day that triggered the so-called war on terror. And how diminished is the movie industry's response to it. Hollywood has produced just two films that are directly about the conflict, and both deal with the immediate response to the al-Qaeda assault. Paul Greengrass' United 93, released in April, dramatized the commotion and heroism on the one hijacked plane that didn't reach its landmark target. Now Oliver Stone has directed World Trade Center, Andrea Berloff's script about two Port Authority cops who were among the last of 20 people saved from the Twin Towers wreckage.

Other than these two docudramas, and the special case of Steven Gaghan's oil-industry exposé Syriana, nothing. The world changed, but movies didn't.


This is not the place for a review of World Trade Center; Richard Schickel has already performed that service. I'll just say that the film is a meticulous, intermittently potent recreation of the grim chaos at ground zero. The movie's power comes from its indirection. The first attack is shown by a shadow of a plane passing across one off the buildings, the second by the sound of a crash. We see a single body plummet from one of the high floors, but others are registered only by the occasional, sickening explosive thud.

The film concentrates on two of the men — Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) — who were pinned down in the metal carnage on the buildings' Concourse level, and on the attempt of a few men above to rescue them. It intercuts the action in Lower Manhattan with the hopes and forebodings of McLoughlin's and Jimeno's wives as they anxiously await news of their husbands' fate.

On its own terms, most of this works. Cage is especially fine. He tamps down his familiar eccentricities, and lends McLoughlin a laser stare of dread as he lies in his metal cage he thinks has become his coffin. After he's rescued and brought out on a stretcher, McLoughlin's gesture of touching the hand of each helper and saying "Thank you" has a heart-touching simplicity and nobility.

But this is, for Pete's sake, an Oliver Stone movie. When this gifted, truculent director approaches this highly charged subject, we expect something other, something more, than honorable sentiment. It's as if Will Ferrell were to play Hamlet. Not that he couldn't, just that the audience would be waiting for the melancholy Dane to go all giggly, strip off his black tutu and run naked through Elsinore. Similarly, Stone's admirers (and detractors) will monitor World Trade Center for some of the conspiratorial vigor he brought to JFK, or the loopy critique, in Natural Born Killers, of extreme violence and the mass media that exploit it and profit from it.

Instead, Stone plays the material straight, and safe. He stays totally on-message. Except for the image of a TV news screen with President Bush vowing to "hunt down" those responsible for the attack, the movie has no hints of the America that will emerge from the attacks. This is a micro, not macro, view of 9/11.

Even given its narrow frame of interest, World Trade Center skews the story for easy uplift. For example, there was another Port Authority officer, Dominick Pezzulo (played by Jay Hernandez), who was trapped with McLoughlin and Jimeno. He managed to free himself from the rubble, working heroically to pry Jimeno loose before he was crushed and killed. Did Pezzulo have a photogenic wife and kids? Might the detailing of their immediate anxiety and lasting grief not have been as illuminating as showing the ultimate triumph of John and Will's families? Why must this movie about 9/11 be only about the survivors?

Indeed, we have to ask whether the message of World Trade Center — that an evil action can provoke an opposite and heroic reaction — is a central or even appropriate message to take from the events of 9/11. Surely the larger lesson learned from that day is that other men, all over the world, took inspiration not from the heroism of the rescuers in New York or the passengers flying over Pennsylvania, but from the 19 hijackers — the twisted brilliance of their scheme and their willingness to sacrifice their lives to make a political and, as they saw it, religious statement.

That mind-set has been the subject of two smaller films, the Palestinian Paradise Now and the New York-based The War Within. Hollywood hasn't touched the Jihadist ethic, even to create a villain out if it. Nor have American movies taken the All the President's Men approach to the Bush Administration's post-9/11 game plan. Where is the film industry when it could explain concerns on every viewer's mind? To paraphrase the old refrain, What if they gave a war and Hollywood didn't come?


In its Golden Age of the '30s and '40s, the industry was often accused of escapism. And certainly the films in Hollywood's war effort portrayed the conflict in terms and tones that would comfort as much as enlighten the audience. A neutral eye might see them as propaganda. But there was no neutrality in movie theaters. So the Germans were painted as sadistic dandies, the Japanese as deranged barbarians. And the American GIs, in a platoon of varied ethnicities (all white — this was before the integration of the Army), were steely men of purpose, risking their lives, sometimes dying, to defend democracy. The underlying presumption: WWII was the good war, fought by the greatest generation.

Maybe it was; or you could argue no. But at least moviemakers of the '40s didn't ignore the war that defined their decade — as Hollywood has done in our decade, in a conflict that has now lasted more than a year longer than America's involvement in World War II.

I can think of four explanations for the change.

1. There's no consensus on this war. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Americans did support the President's decision, but that majority has evaporated. There's nothing like the audience's rooting interest that '40s war movies could take for granted. Americans today support the troops, but not the war that, like McLoughlin and Jimeno, they are trapped in.

2. There aren't easily dramatizable battles.Anzio, Iwo Jima, the retaking of Bataan, all provided scenarios for uplifting World War II movies. In Iraq, the most famous setting for American military involvement is Abu Ghraib. No easy inspiration there.

3. This war doesn't touch enough Americans. According to Defense Department statistics, 2,591 soldiers have died in Iraq. That's a death toll just slightly less than the number of people who died at the World Trade Center. The military casualties, both those who died and the thousands more who returned with wounds that will never heal, are heartbreaking. But America at large has not been touched by Iraq because the sacrifice is nothing like what people on the home front endured in World War II: the rationing and deprivations, the ache in millions of families when their children went off to war. Want real war movies? Impose a draft. That's why there was an impulse to make movies about soldiers in World War II, Korea and, eventually, Vietnam. For most Americans, Iraq is a bloody mess where other people's kids do the bleeding.

4. Movies mean less than they did. In the '40s, movies occupied a central place in the national consciousness. With no TV, no video games, no Internet, Americans — almost all Americans — went to the movies a lot. In 1946, the year after the war, Hollywood sold an all-time high 4 billion tickets in the domestic market; that's 30 visits to the Bijou for every American. Moviegoing was a habit, not an event. At the theater they saw not only their favorite stars but newsreels and documentaries of the war — the only moving pictures of the battles involving their sons and boyfriends. At the end of every feature came the invocation to buy war bonds, "on sale at this theater." You couldn't avoid the war, and pleas to support it, if you went to the movies.

Today, movies are an adornment to popular culture, not an essential, indoctrinating part of it. The number of tickets sold annually is about five per person, but the demographic skew is much more severe, with the young accounting for a lopsided percentage of the audience. As for moving pictures of current events, TV and the Internet offer as many as anyone could want, but the newsreel is as dead as Free Dishes Night. Thus movies are now more escapist than the old Hollywood product ever was, more reticent to turn the nation's central anxieties into screen drama.

Susan Sontag defined science fiction as "the imagination of disaster." Today, that definition could apply to international news — and not just in our imaginations. It's the anticipation of disaster. Moviemakers want to profit from our fears as well as our desires; that's their business. But they stick to fears of a smaller, more intimate kind: the serial killer with a knife, the snakes on a plane. They're reluctant to think about the Big Fear, because that fear is too close to the headlines, and about the current Big Villains, because that means Islamic extremists. In Hollywood today, greed is the handmaiden of timidity. I envision a studio V.P. for marketing standing before a wall map, putting his hand over the wide swatch of Arab countries and saying, You want to lose all these markets?


Maybe it's unfair to criticize a decently made, honorably intentioned movie for not being a different one. World Trade Center is what it is. Yet it strikes me as odd that the only two major 9/11 movies financed by Hollywood have been about the day itself — two old-fashioned hymns of tribute, to the heroes of Flight 93 in one film and the survivors of the Twin Towers' collapse in the other.

I'd like to see movies about the decisions, on America's side and its enemies', that led to the attacks. Lawrence Wright's new book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 has six movies' worth of solid melodrama in the turf wars, the battle of ideas, among government agencies. The story of John O'Neill, head of the FBI's al-Qaeda unit, and his struggle to pry essential information out of the CIA, can bring a reader to angry tears. (O'Neill, who will be the subject of a TV movie starring Havey Keitel, left the agency in frustration, became security boss of the World Trade Center, and died on 9/11.)

I'd like to see movies about what came after: the Administration's canny mobilizing of American sentiment in favor of an attack on a nation whose involvement in 9/11 was never proved and now thoroughly debunked. Irwin Winkler's Home of the Brave, starring Samuel L. Jackson as one of three veterans returning home from a harrowing tour of Iraq, looks as if it could be a darker update of The Best Years of Our Lives. And perhaps, if the planned adaptation of Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies is actually made (Crash director Paul Haggis has expressed an interest in it), Hollywood will have opened a window or two on the events that have preoccupied us this last half-decade.

Speculation (or paranoia) abhors a vacuum, and into the hole where the pre- and post-9/11 films should be, a website like Loose Change creeps in, with its "evidence" of America's complicity in the WTC attacks. I'm not looking for Hollywood to take a conspiratorial view of 9/11. But if a filmmaker were to try, you'd think it would be Stone, whose 1991 JFK argued that virtually everyone killed Jack Kennedy. Instead, he makes an apolitical weepie that could as easily be about any tense rescue, of a mother in a burning building or a kitten down a well.

There's a roiling world of germane topics beyond the ones raised in United 93 and World Trade Center — stories of horror and heroism worth telling. Get to it, Hollywood. Sometimes the best way to contribute to the war effort is to explain how complex and terrible war is.