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Center of the World
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
There have been a lot of bad movies that got nominated for a "Best Picture" Oscar in film history, but few nominees received as much ridicule as 2011's Extremely Loud and Terribly Close. The Stephen Daldry film, based on Jonathan Saffran Foer's 2005 novel, was that peculiar Hollywood anomaly — the high-prestige, awards-centered "serious" movie that got killed by critics yet still managed to get incredible support from Academy voters. Despite the appearance of actors with a great deal of awards pedigree (Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max Von Sydow, Viola Davis), the film never caught on with audiences in the US, grossing slightly less than $32 million during the course of its release. Odds makers listed the film as the longest of the long shots in the "Best Picture" category in 2011, giving the movie a 75/1 chance of winning the top prize.
Many of the reviews for Extremely Loud were astonishingly savage. Most critics objected to the misguided efforts of Stephen Daldry to transfer the idiosyncratic tone of Foer's novel to the big screen — what worked well in the novel turned to treacle on film, making the material heavy-handed and, at the same time, jarringly whimsical. This is a problem, for when your film uses the events of September 11 at the story's center, a few missteps on the part of the director can alienate audiences, causing vitriolic, cathartic responses from both reviewers and movie-goers alike.
Despite the "Best Picture" nomination, the notoriety surrounding the film has probably made Hollywood producers think twice about green-lighting any potential 9/11 project. In the decade following the attacks, there have been numerous books, songs, movies that have used 9/11 as a focal point, and in most cases, the results have been gratuitously bad, sometimes horrifically so — Toby Keith's idiotic vengeance anthem, "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue," Robert Pattinson's 2010 film Remember Me (where his character, Tyler, gets placed on the 92nd floor on 9/11, at the movie's climax), etc. Using 9/11 as a mere plot device, or as the impetus for a knuckle-headed, red-neck rallying cry are unconscionably wrong choices, something that no self-respecting artist should attempt.
Maybe it's simply too soon for anyone to tackle such an impossible, imposing subject as September 11. Even 10 years removed, the sheer horror of the day still exerts such a powerful hold on the nation's psyche that it's hard to imagine an artist intrepid enough to place 9/11 at the heart of their story. The potential for disaster is just too great, as the producers of Extremely Loud have obviously learned.
It should be noted, however, that there have been a few attempts since 2001 that have managed to examine the 9/11 tragedy successfully. Paul Greengrass, the director of United 93, displayed an almost other-worldly sensitivity in his real-time re-creation of the hijacked airplane flight that crashed near Shankville, Pennsyvania on 9/11. Greengrass and the producers took great pains to seek out the approval and input from grieving family members in the making of the film, and the resulting movie is a harrowing and humanizing look at the terror and courage that existed aboard the doomed flight. There's probably no other way to tell the story than how Greengrass did in the film — real-time, grimly matter-of-fact, with virtually no ostentation or forced emotionality. It's like a documentary, or cinema verite, and it is wholly affecting in its simplicity. Despite the great care that went into the making of the film, though, it's still an excruciating experience: I frequently return to films I champion for a second or third viewing, yet I've never been tempted to watch United 93 again.
It was probably inevitable that despite the film's sober, respectful tone and generally favorable reviews, there were still howls of protest attending the release of the film. Cries of "Too Soon!" were heard at the opening, and many film goers and critics received the film with noticeable coolness. Similarly, the best book I've read about 9/11, William Langewiesche's American Ground, also received great disapprobation upon its publication (it was first serialized in The Atlantic in 2002, as a feature article, then published as a book in 2003.) American Ground is primarily a story about the great recovery that took place after the WTC collapse, the incredible, months-long, super-human effort that it took to secure the disaster area and eventually reduce it to something manageable. Langewiesche had been granted full access to the recovery, and his detailed account of the monumental struggle to conquer "the pile" is a moving, heroic, and curiously American story — "American," I say, for the two people who ended up "in charge" of the clean-up weren't chosen, they simply made the best decisions at the most crucial times, making it up as they went along, and everybody else on the site followed their lead. The fact that they were given the authority to make those decisions is a tribute to the distinctly American tradition of improvisation and independent thinking, and it's a testament to the two called-upon leaders that not one volunteer worker was killed during the recovery effort.
There have been a lot of documentaries produced about 9/11 and its aftermath, and while some have achieved degrees of success and acceptance (No End in Sight, Michael Moore's noisy Fahrenheit 9/11), there's only one that I feel drawn to, again and again — Ric Burns' The Center of the World, the concluding chapter to the film maker's great 17 1/2 hour series about New York City, simply called New York: A Documentary Film. The Center of the World has a curious history — Burns had just completed the last of the epic PBS documentary in August of 2001, and then, when he saw the towers fall a month later, he realized that one more vital story needed to be added. So he reassembled his team, and produced the eighth and final chapter, which premiered two years later, in 2003.
What makes the film extraordinary--what sets it apart from all other 9/11 documentaries--are the articulate, well-thought-out responses from the interviewees that Burns had enlisted for the final chapter. A documentary film maker is often at the mercy of his guests — if he picks the wrong, unenlightened person to speak in front of the camera, the film can become intolerable. (The recent PBS "American Masters" film on Harper Lee suffered this exact fate; the director had unfortunately chosen a number of uninspiring subjects who, though they clearly revered To Kill A Mockingbird, were virtually incapable of saying anything illuminating about it.) In The Center of the World, Burns chose architect Leslie Robertson, ex-mayor Ed Koch, writer Pete Hamill and dozens of other smart, insightful witnesses who were able to speak about the myriad of emotions on that fateful day in thoughtful, compassionate, empathetic ways. They expressed things that needed to be said, and they proved that some taboo subjects can indeed be talked about, no matter how daunting the task may initially seem.