What do this summer's movies about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have in common (other than Maggie Gyllenhaal)? Well, for starters, they make it clear that even five years after that fateful day, we're still barely able to talk about it.
Both Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" and the far-smaller-budget "Great New Wonderful" (directed, oddly enough, by Danny Leiner, the guy behind "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle") wrestle with how to tell a story of steel-and-concrete-shattering loss without rubbing raw nerves the wrong way.
Earlier this year, "United 93" took a documentary/just-the-facts-ma'am approach to dealing with this difficult subject, mixing the themes of loss and heroism.
Those who chafed at the idea of Oliver Stone being entrusted with any part of the legacy of September 11 need not worry. "World Trade Center," which comes out in August, is likewise apolitical. It's September 11 by way of Michael Bay ("Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor") - all popcorn- and eye-popping spectacle, dramatizing the day that shook a nation and launched a world war through the story of two guys trapped under a pile of rocks, yelling, "Don't you die on me, man!"
This isn't to slight the men or the real-life acts of heroism "World Trade Center" portrays. The re-creation of September 11 Mr. Stone puts together is quite breathtaking, and, to anyone who lived through that day, quite possibly traumatic. Seeing - really, feeling - the twin towers fall, from the perspective of a group of Port Authority police officers trapped between them on their way into the burning buildings, is a shattering experience.
Just thinking of the lives lost in those few instants when the towers fell - including so many of those of New York's finest and bravest, who volunteered to put their lives on the line that day - is almost too much to take. But "World Trade Center" doesn't focus on those deaths, those sacrifices, but on two men who lived that day, and the ecstatic families who got their husbands and fathers and brothers back. Mr. Stone focuses on the buildings instead of the yawning gaps left behind. The story is in the gaps.
Avoiding any backlash, "World Trade Center" concludes with a speech from Nicholas Cage (playing one of the rescued cops) about how September 11 showed us that humans are capable of great evil, but we're also capable of great good.
The fact that filmmakers apparently believe Americans aren't ready for anything more than this, five years after the beginning of the war on terror, says something about the studio system. Instead of the patriotic films of World War II, Hollywood apparently believes we're at war with rogue Russian nationalists ("The Sum of All Fears," "The Sentinel") and super-intelligent jets ("Stealth").
It's understandable that moviemakers are fearful of being accused of exploitation. But isn't there a way to deal with what the attacks meant, without "cashing in" on tragedy?
Perhaps that fear of anyone - aside from hat vendors down at ground zero, of course - making money off of the terror attacks might be why a smaller, independent film is the first to get it right. Eschewing broad geopolitical statements or even any direct reference to that day, "The Great New Wonderful" manages to delve more deeply into the wound left behind than any of the studios' big-budget pyrotechnics.
In "The Great New Wonderful," September 11 is a whisper: a title card telling us it's September 2002, a shot of a plane flying overhead. Meanwhile, a series of interlocking narratives tell the stories of average New Yorkers dealing with everyday problems - none of them related to the attacks, but all of them permeated by an uneasy quiet, a sense of loss, and a slow realization that, as Tony Shalhoub (playing an oddball grief counselor) tells a perky, unfazed patient: Grief will sneak up on you when you least expect it.
With the studios' step-by-step recreations of September 11 - from the air in "United 93" and from the ground in "World Trade Center" - now out of the way, perhaps the door is now open to something deeper. While it would be too much to expect from Hollywood to see any movies dealing forthrightly with Islamic terrorism and the clash of civilizations in which we are now engaged, we might at least begin to see more movies about what it means to live with the grief of that day, as opposed to simply tracing our fingers over our scars.