Ten years after the towers fell, their long shadows continue to fall over Hollywood. Even as Sept. 11, 2001, changed us, it also changed the characters who populate the movies and television shows we watch.
To say that we were caught by surprise would be a gross understatement. Operation Desert Storm and the bombing of the USS Cole were previews of a sort, but the attacks on 9/11 shattered, finally and forever, our comforting illusion that Fortress America was invincible. The question so many of us asked ourselves back then — ”Why do they hate us?” — is a reminder of just how naive we were. Few of us truly understood that 9/11 was not the beginning of The Story; it merely heralded America’s involvement in a longer, more complicated narrative. And even though the end of The Story remains elusive, Hollywood’s creative community continues to grapple with the challenge of telling it.
None of us can even begin to understand 9/11 without placing it in a broader geopolitical context. Some basic knowledge of historical events dating years, decades, and sometimes centuries before that tragic day is also a prerequisite. Munich, Charlie Wilson’s War, and Kingdom of Heaven are only a few examples of Hollywood’s attempt to dramatize some of the earlier chapters in The Story that led up to 9/11. Like all prequels, these movies have the clarity of hindsight, and the looming awareness of what would happen on September 11 makes them, by turns, ironic and tragic.
Since 9/11, The Story has taken turns not even the most prophetic filmmaker could have imagined. Consider all that has happened. With the rubble of the Twin Towers not yet cleared, our country went to war, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. These conflicts became battlefields in the more nebulous ”War on Terror,” which gave rise to Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, to laws expanding surveillance of our citizens, and to the Blackwater phenomenon of privatized warfare. As much as they may have defended our national security, these responses to 9/11 also threw into question whether America truly occupied the moral high ground that most of us had taken for granted. Complicating The Story even more have been the death of Osama bin Laden and the ”Arab Spring,” which has given rise to violent revolutions throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. And it’s why the filmmakers who’ve managed to tell The Story without being reductive or simplistic deserve two thumbs up. The Dark Knight is an affecting post-9/11 parable that dramatizes the price our heroes are compelled to pay for doing ”whatever it takes” to subdue evil (personified by Heath Ledger’s brilliant portrayal of the Joker). The Hurt Locker explores a similar theme, and while its setting is more realistic, it also works as a parable. United 93 is an excruciatingly realistic film, as is The Visitor, a powerful love story set against the immigration policies our government put in place in the wake of 9/11 — policies that, depending on your politics, suggest either xenophobia or the sober necessity of national security.
My own professional bias aside, I actually think television may be the medium best suited to accommodate the complexity and fluidity of The Story. Joel Surnow and Bob Cochran created 24 before 9/11, but the show was launched only a few weeks later, and soon came to be identified with America’s ”wanted dead or alive” response to terrorism. Former secretary of homeland security Michael Chertoff said that Jack’s quandary — constantly having to choose the better of two bad options — reflected a grim post-9/11 reality. Always breathlessly, and often ruthlessly, Jack made those hard calls for us, week after week.
But after several years, America had moved beyond its initial post-9/11 fears, and my colleagues and I found ourselves having to answer for Jack’s ”whatever it takes” style of counterterrorism. Some critics even accused the show of promoting torture and provoking Islamophobia. To remain relevant, our story had to evolve with The Story. Jack’s defiant defense of his post-9/11 conduct gave way to the realization that by saving the rest of us, he had done irrevocable damage to his own soul.
When Alex Gansa and I developed the upcoming series Homeland, we started with the central question, Should Americans still fear the same things today that we feared in the aftermath of 9/11? Other questions soon followed. What does it mean to be a patriot? Should we trade our constitutional rights for our security? How does America honor its veterans? Why did we go to war, and why are we still fighting?
Even now, 10 years after 9/11, challenging the easy answers is the most any of us in Hollywood’s creative community can aspire to — while keeping in mind how lucky we are to have the freedom to tell stories that ask these complicated questions.
Gordon’s series Homeland debuts on Showtime Oct. 2. His terrorism-themed novel, Gideon’s War, will be out in paperback Sept. 27.