Many of us now mark time pre-9/11 and post-9/11. Horrific events that day took nearly 3000 lives and altered history. It’s been 10 years. Americans and others now regard their sense of national identity and personal security much differently. Films have stepped up to reinterpret that moment when everything changed. Dozens of movies, large and small, offer stylized reminders of events and their effects on people. Most tell us something important about a seismic shift we’ll never forget.
This Smackdown revisits 9/11 films sitting at either end of the heartbreak spectrum: One contender focuses on the big picture for all of us. The other dramatizes how those weighty events affect one person.
Reign Over Me from 2007 has college roommates played by Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler reconnecting years after 9/11. One suffers grief so profound he doesn’t want to remember. Both learn the redemptive power of friendship. Mike Binder wrote, directed and acted in this well regarded, if not widely seen, feature film.
By contrast, lots of people saw our Defending Champion, Fahrenheit 9/11 from writer/director/self-promoter Michael Moore. This is the most popular documentary in history by far, earning more than $222 million in box office since its 2004release. It has been widely praised and condemned, just like its creator.
Alan Johnson (Cheadle) has a busy dental practice and a marriage in crisis. He has a family, a beautiful wife, Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith), and a growing feeling of being smothered. “I love her,” Alan says, “but I need some air.” Janeane feels walled out of her husband’s life and pushes harder. Alan lives in well-tended anxiety. He hates dentistry and is uncomfortable with many of his patients, especially Donna Remar (Saffron Burrows), who makes an unwanted pass at him, then threatens to sue him.
By chance, Alan spots his old classmate Charlie Fineman (Sandler) leaving a Manhattan hardware store. When they finally meet, Alan can’t believe what the years have done to Charlie: He’s withdrawn, distracted and glued to earphones that block out the world. Charlie’s a mess, living in some long-gone past and obsessed with remodeling his kitchen. He’s no longer a dentist or husband and father: Doreen Fineman, Jenny, Julie and Gina died when American Airlines flight 11 flew into the World Trade Center.
These reconnected friends hit the clubs, attend a Mel Brooks movie marathon and play the video game Shadow of the Colossus. It’s a delicate connection, even after Charlie begins therapy. All the while Charlie avoids his dead wife’s parents, Ginger and Jonathan (Melinda Dillon and Robert Klein). Ultimately, Reign Over Me hinges on a decision made by those in-laws.
The Defending Champion
Michael Moore dedicates Fahrenheit 9/11 to the memory of his friend, Bill Weems, who died at the World Trade Center and to servicemen from his hometown and all who died in the Iraq war. The film assembled from news footage, interviews and video effects takes direct aim at President George W. Bush, scrutinizing what he didn’t do to help prevent 9/11 and what he did do in managing the subsequent War on Terror.
The film questions the ballot count in Florida that put Mr. Bush in the White House. The former President is portrayed as having little taste for chasing Osama bin Laden but indulging a hearty appetite for vacation time in the months prior to 9/11.
Fahrenheit 9/11 does not let up, suggesting Bush family ties to the bin Ladens prompted the U.S. government to fly two dozen bin Laden family members out of the country before any authorities could question them. This, after the U.S. government grounded all civilian air traffic following 9/11. While some of his arguments are a reach, he’s on firmer ground when he argues that a compliant news media, the Iraq War and the USA Patriot Act compromised domestic security by fostering a climate of fear.
Fahrenheit 9/11 offers dramatic contrasts: we hear from Vice President Cheney, assorted members of Congress and Cabinet members, none of whom has a child in the fight. Their certitude pales when compared against Michigan mother Lila Lipscomb, who lost a son in Karbala and must endure a screeching woman outside the White House questioning her patriotism.
The film is generally complimentary toward American troops but does not ignore soldiers’ words and actions that, in Moore’s view, place them on the wrong side of the angels.
In several respects, both movies are remarkably similar: 9/11 informs each to its core, and we see how the resulting outrage affects Americans and others. Just how these movies handle those elements gives us separation
Reign Over Me offers Adam Sandler in one of his occasional dramatic roles — and he handles it with blessedly little of the strange voices and odd physical business he often has trouble avoiding. Charlie’s isolation and emotional distress are palpable when he attempts “suicide by cop” and opens up about his lost family: “They adored me,” he tells his friend, and I believed him.
Don Cheadle is a delight as Alan Johnson, playing him just smart, sensitive and dorky enough to be accessible. I can hear him telling Janeane that he doesn’t mean to exclude her from his life. Jada Pinkett Smith is a good fit, as are Liv Tyler, Dillon, Klein and director Mike Binder, who plays a family friend watching out for Charlie’s financial well-being.
We need to consider Fahrenheit 9/11 differently. Michael Moore wrote, directed, co-produced and served as a true lightning rod for this production. His builds his points well but undermines them with a distinctly snarky tone in the narration. The editing makes subjects like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz appear slightly ridiculous trying to tone down his flyaway hair.
Then there’s Moore himself. From the first, his motives came under suspicion by the media he so disparages, and Moore does little to endear himself. Some people, like conservative critic Dave Kopel, who wrote the long and torturous “59 Deceits in Fahrenheit 9/11,” jump at the chance to attack the foundations of the film. Moore kept busy documenting his points once the movie came out, refuting charges of bias with arguments that, in turn, drew more vitriol from the right. By the time Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Moore was entrenched as the right wing’s most reviled target of liberal excess.
Working through this comparison means tiptoeing through a field of disturbing contradictions that echo many of our own responses to 9/11. Neither film offers debate-settling insights to satisfy all viewers. Many people can’t agree they even got all the questions straight.
Reign Over Me is a remarkably good film about one friend helping another step back from a personal abyss created on September 11, 2001. It’s worth watching, worth a place in your DVD library. Good as it is, the film is swamped by something much bigger.
Even after 10 years, these events may still be too recent, too painful for us to make sense of the confusion felt in our lives and portrayed on the screen. Leave it to the historians and future filmmakers. For now, our imperfect winner, Fahrenheit 9/11 comes closer to helping us understand an outrage that changed us forever.
For another compelling 9/11 related post, please read Hollywood in Wartime: Remembering the 2001 Emmy Awards by former TV Academy chairman and Smackdown editor-in-chief Bryce Zabel. He was elected immediately before 9/11 and forced to postpone the Emmy awards an unprecedented two times in the same year.