Return to 9/11

In recent weeks, Oliver Stone's Sept. 11 epic, "World Trade Center," has become its own ground zero of national debate.

Columnists who have attended advance screenings of the movie have been generally favorable, though not without injecting a healthy whiff of ideology. "It's impossible not to take a political message from the movie," writes National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez, who goes on to describe the movie as an argument on behalf of faith, heterosexual marriage and "united outrage."

Armchair critics in the blogosphere, meanwhile, have been predictably sour, even though most have seen only the two-minute theatrical trailer. "Hey Oliver," taunts Agent Smith on starpulse.com, "how 'bout waiting at least 20 years or so before trying to cash in on other people's tragedy?"

And then there's MSNBC's Tucker Carlson, who went the bloggers one better.

"Neither I nor anyone I know is going to see it," Carlson reported. "How could your memory, your experience of 9/11, be any more vivid than it already is? Don't bring it to the silver screen. We don't need it there."

Welcome to the opening of an Oliver Stone film.

Breaking into the mainstream in 1986 with his Oscar-winning Vietnam memoir, "Platoon," Stone quickly morphed in the public consciousness from brilliant cinematic upstart to alleged conspiracy-theorist nut, primarily because of his Kennedy assassination chronicle, "JFK." Although the crackpot rep is largely unfair (while Stone took some liberties, he drew most of his material for "JFK" directly from the Warren Commission report and preexisting conspiracy theories), the loony label stuck. That's Hollywood.

Still, Stone forged ahead, taking on cultural institutions -- the Sixties, Watergate, even the National Football League -- with movies that had the moxie to plumb events of historical significance, often while the ink was still wet on the newsprint. If nothing else, that took guts.

Why go there?

But now Stone has embarked on the greatest gamble of his career, resurrecting the wrenching pain and seismic shockwaves that erupted five years ago next month, when four fuel-fat jets plowed into the American psyche, forever changing this nation's perception of itself and its place in the global community.

Public discourse about 9/11 has always been tortured. Like a family nervously discussing a favorite uncle's alcohol problem at the dinner table, many Americans find the conversation more harrowing than helpful -- so why go there?

And yet the truth is, America has always been obsessed with its own dramas. Whether on TV or on the big screen, on front pages or in quickie books, we are a nation bent on relentlessly reliving our darkest moments until either the pain has been exorcised or we just grow bored.

The West Virginia mine disaster in January, for instance, commanded newspaper and TV coverage far beyond the usual cycle. Hurricane Katrina segments still run on cable news channels nearly a year later. Even the networks' prime-time dramas have joined the collective chest-thumping, incorporating terrorism storylines into their shows as blithely as they do Pepsi can product placements.

But this time it's different. Like Paul Greengrass' "United 93," which was released earlier this year, "World Trade Center" asks us to tear the scab off the rawest of national wounds. This is where Carlson and his ilk, despite their arrogance, merit an answer to their question: Why does America need to see this movie?

The answer is painfully simple: Because much of the country has forgotten the real lesson of Sept. 11.

For a short while after that cataclysmic morning five hazy summers ago, parents hugged their kids a little tighter; neighbors dropped in on one another unexpectedly, then stayed for dinner; and Americans everywhere added a few extra words to their nightly prayers, asking God to provide comfort for people they didn't know.

In the end, we drew strength from our shared grief, and in doing so, propped each other up. For the briefest of moments, our sense of family, as a nation, ran far deeper than the gaping holes that scarred the soil of New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

And yet in less than a year, the very event that had inspired this awesome breath of unity had begun to tear us apart. In what now seems like an instant, Sept. 11 got ugly.

The fallout

It became the driving force behind an unpopular, divisive war, waged against a country that played no role in the terrorist attacks.

It became a weapon in two national elections, recklessly waved about by politicians hell-bent on challenging the patriotism of their opponents.

It became Valerie Plame and Halliburton, wiretaps and funding fights, POWs and WMDs.

Just like the sickening footage of the Twin Towers pancaking down onto themselves, our pride as an undivided nation collapsed in the blink of an eye, leaving us wandering in the dust ever since.

If you think you were immune to this distressing transformation, try to remember the way you spoke about 9/11 to the guy in the next cubicle back in 2001, and the surprising ease with which you shared your feelings. Now imagine talking to him today -- about the "war on terror," or the fighting in Fallujah, or the congressional debate over prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Would you be just as candid with your thoughts? Would he?

The real tragedy is, this didn't have to be. Not since Pearl Harbor had the nation felt so blindingly compelled to pull together. But rather than hold fast to that common purpose -- to invest in what Lincoln called "the bonds of fraternal feeling" -- we squandered the moment, then sped off in the other direction.

Stone's film faithfully -- respectfully -- returns us to those sacred moments in late 2001, when what really mattered was the love we felt for one another, and for our country. As a stirring survival story, it reminds us that a handful of souls salvaged from the twisted carnage that had claimed thousands could still be a blessing. It is a tragically beautiful film.

Three weeks ago I went downtown to see Ground Zero for the first time in a few years. At the far east end of the mammoth excavation hole is a concrete observation deck, where New Yorkers and tourists can contemplate what is now a somber construction site for the planned Freedom Tower and 9/11 memorial.

A few dozen of us lined up along the chain-link fence, craning our necks upward to read a moment-to-moment chronology of the fiery chaos that had raged less than a hundred yards from where we stood. The summer sun was brutal, yet we all remained there, hands to foreheads, shielding our eyes against the glare as we read in silence.

It is my hope that Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" inspires moviegoers to do the same thing -- to squint against the harsh light of day in an effort to recall, even for just two hours, the common humanity that we, the people, felt on the morning of Sept. 12.

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