On the fifth anniversary of September 11, I went to see Oliver Stone's new movie, World Trade Center. I sat in the last row of the mini-cinema at the maxiplex, under the projector, trying for enough distance to take in the panorama. I expected huge images - and, because I'm a born-and-bred New Yorker, huge feelings.
But, notwithstanding shots of the pre-attack skyline, the dissolving buildings and roaring black clouds, and even of the Earth from a satellite, World Trade Center is anti-panoramic. Its focus is resolutely close-up, in both space and time. Indeed, except for a short TV clip of an impassive George W. Bush and one of a moved, and moving, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the single, interminable day and night the film chronicles might have transpired in Istanbul in 1999, Dresden in 1945 or Pompeii in 79 A.D.
World Trade Center is about two men and two families. Port Authority cops John McGloughlin and Will Jimeno rushed into Tower 1 just as it started to come down and were trapped beneath 20 feet of concrete and steel in a collapsed elevator shaft. While they waited for an improbable rescue, their wives, children and extended families waited, nearly as impotent, in their suburban homes for news - and for the worst.
Stone has been praised for leaving what Time's Richard Schickel called his "sometimes loopy political opinions" on the cutting-room floor. New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote, admiringly, "In the Sept. 11 of World Trade Center, feeling transcends politics."
But when the politics-and-history-obsessed Oliver Stone makes the first major film about the signal event in modern American political history and leaves out politics and history, he's telling us something. Intentionally or not, Stone is clueing us in to the ways September 11 has been interpreted and reproduced - shot, edited and screened - for public consumption. Like American politics since Reagan, this most global of public events has been shrunk to a collection of family tragedies. And the feelings we are encouraged - even permitted - to have are private.
From the first hours, the Bushies have done their best to shape the 9/11 Experience into a collective emotion. They call it "patriotism." But patriotism does not mean, to them, participation in the public forum of democracy or defense of the nation. It means keeping our heads down and our mouths shut while the police round up "suspects" (14,000 at last count). It means tending our own gardens while we trust a secretive, all-powerful cabal in the Oval Office to defend the "homeland" - and, of course, to "protect our children."
The chief emotion necessary for this passive consent is terror, which is produced by the War on Terror in order to justify the means of defeating it. Terror of an enemy who is allegedly everywhere, though, is a strangely private feeling: You experience it, by yourself, while boarding a plane or watching TV at home. It's also a feeling antagonistic to resistance or action, which, after all, would entail leaving our fortresses and going out into the street. Who would do that when suicide bombers are lurking in every public place?
Unauthorized emotions (or thoughts) that leak out are swiftly censured. The week after the attacks, Susan Sontag suggested in The New Yorker that our grief should not make us "stupid." Precisely when they should be thinking self-critically about why the U.S. is despised by much of the world, she wrote, our public officials set themselves the opposite task: national "confidence-building and grief management." Politics - "which entails disagreement, which promotes candor - has been replaced by psychotherapy."
Perhaps psychotherapy was the wrong word. Sedation is more like it. Or civil commitment. Sontag was roundly denounced as a wingnut, even a terrorist sympathizer.
How were we to feel about the September 11 victims? We were not only to pity but to admire them. Within days they were "heroes," within weeks nearly saints. The Times ran a series of mini-eulogies. Each subject was good, each beloved. The sexist brats on the trading floor were rewritten as fun-loving scamps; the boring accountants ran quiet and deep. Every Little League coach deserved to be admitted to the Hall of Parental Fame.
And what could we do to demonstrate our solidarity? Our leaders offered the most private, inward, "family-centered" of acts: Go shopping!
While citizenship was reduced to consumerism, loss would be translated to household economics. But if the Times was mourning each aborted life equally, the federal 9/11 Compensation Fund was calculating its value in potential future earnings. Stockbrokers were worth more than busboys, and only "real" families qualified. Not until 2003 did the fund approve a payment to the female partner of a woman killed at the Pentagon.
As things are going, we may be unable even to remember collectively. At Ground Zero, the monument is hopelessly tangled in the domestic squabbles of the 9/11 Families. Intended as a place of public remembrance, it will be a vast family cemetery plot.
And now comes World Trade Center the film, the first serious popular-culture eulogy. Should we be surprised that it is not about terrorism or even terror, but about specific, personal fear? Not about ideology or religion (though Jesus makes an appearance, looking like a large halogen bulb shining in the viewer's eyes), nor about capitalism, militarism or patriotism? Not about the world, the United States or even, really, New York City?
Like the official story of 9/11, the film is about faith in family and fidelity in love, especially marital love. About to succumb to death, Officer McLoughlin is saved by a vision of his wife, floating above him, sexily nagging him to finish the kitchen renovation.
I watched World Trade Center alone in an empty theater. I cringed each time the rubble rained down on the buried men, shook with frustration when the families were given false information, wept when they were reunited. Then I emerged into an empty lobby and onto the treeless Maple Tree Place mall. As if a neutron bomb had dropped, there was no trace of human life except for the chain stores and restaurants.
But I didn't feel like shopping, or even talking to a waiter to give him my order. I had had a satisfying consumer experience. I had "felt" 9/11 - in private.
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