The Day That Changed... Very Little

Five years on, we're not as different as we want our 9/11 movies to tell us we are

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The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were an assault as much on America's pop culture as on its people. Islamic radicals' disgust for consumer America runs as deep as their hate of its policies. "We love death. The U.S. loves life," Osama bin Laden famously said after 9/11, but an Afghan militant perhaps made the point better: "The Americans love Pepsi-Cola. We love death." The sweet, decay-promoting fruits of the American pleasure machine are, to fundamentalists, a threat to their way of life as powerful as any aggressor's army.

We should be proud, then, that while ground zero is still being rebuilt, pop culture emerged with barely a dent. In the fifth year after 9/11, it's revisiting the attacks head-on. Oliver Stone's World Trade Center (see review, next page) digs into the rubble of the Twin Towers, telling the story of two police officers who were among the last survivors to be pulled out. United 93 grossed about $43 million worldwide, a respectable sum for a $15 million movie about the passengers who brought down a plane before hijackers could crash it. In January the cable movie Flight 93 drew A&E's highest ratings ever.

Still, saying that 9/11 has entered pop culture is not the same thing as saying that 9/11 has changed pop culture. The disaster movie, the docudrama, the inspirational war story--those are not exactly innovations. There were predictions just after the attacks that pop culture would become more patriotic or more nostalgic or more introspective. Instead, it has just become more of what it was before--violent, irreverent, licentious and so on. 24 is a great show, but you can trace its ice-blooded do-what-you-gotta-do-ism back to Dirty Harry, not Donald Rumsfeld. It's hard to see how any post-9/11 movie has hit on the nobility, banality and absurdity of war in a way Saving Private Ryan didn't. On Three Moons Over Milford, a new comedy-drama on ABC Family, ordinary people change their lives after the moon breaks into three pieces, threatening Earth. But it's a series on a modestly rated cable channel. Five years after 9/11, rethinking your priorities in the face of mortality is now niche programming.

Why should pop culture change? Has your life changed? Unless you're in a military family, probably not. The Administration's message to citizens since the attacks has been, Believe that 9/11 changed everything when it comes to foreign and domestic policy and that 9/11 changed nothing when it comes to spending and living. (Knowing that each day may be your last may be good for your soul, but it's probably not a recipe for high worker productivity.) And the ordinary stuff of people's lives is what pop culture, America's unconscious, is fashioned from.

So instead of stories that reflect how 9/11 changed us, we have stories that help us flatter ourselves into believing that it did. The Flight 93 movies and World Trade Center, not to take anything away from them, cherry-picked the few triumphant stories of 9/11. They let us see it as a day when Americans tapped their strength, transformed and sacrificed--whether you and I, munching our Raisinets in the audience, did or not.

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