This blog is part of the courses on film, art, literature, and media
given by Dr.
Hudson Moura, Toronto, Canada.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

America and Cinema: The Day that Changed Both Worlds

Review of chapter 23: "Representing 9/11 in Hollywood cinema,” Eleftheria ThanouliRoutledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy.

by Matthew Rodrigopulle

The attacks that took place in the United States of America on September 11, 2001 were nothing short of tragic. The terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center and on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. definitely changed the world’s outlook on security and life, marking the events as a touchy subject to reimagine for years to come. With such tragedies however, came stories too, and as Hollywood always finds, stories can be told well through the production of films. Although it may be difficult to tell the events of 9/11 as stories without wrestling a few unrested thoughts, certain techniques can accurately capture the essence of the stories without negative reaction. While steps could be taken to improve its writing and formation, the ideas and arguments laid out in the article, “Representing 9/11 in Hollywood cinema” by Eleftheria Thanouli, offers a good amount of insight into the strategic methods of covering 9/11 accurately and sensibly in film.

The article begins with Eleftheria Thanouli introducing the events of 9/11 and explaining its initial unattractiveness to being portrayed in Hollywood cinema, despite its “spectacular nature of events” (Thanouli, 2016, p. 302). Nevertheless, Thanouli refers to two main Hollywood films based on the events of 9/11 for her article’s foundation: Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006) and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006). Although they both cover the events that took place on September 11, 2001 and have portrayals of individual heroics, they are both very different in the stories they follow. Thanouli also emphasizes the differences in the ways they are told, looking at plot, cinematic and editing techniques, and their endings. Thanouli proceeds to explain how Robert Burgoyne (2008), in his chapter “The topical historical film: United 93 and World Trade Center” attempts to mirror the two films by saying they both offer their audience a way to cope with the events of 9/11 in different ways. These ways include their visual aspects and their juxtapositions. For example, Thanouli adds that Burgoyne states United 93 (2006) has a “nervous, verité visual style” while World Trade Center (2006) offers a “a minimal-ist, nearly abstract visual approach” (Burgoyne, 2008). Thanouli also discusses the work by Douglas Kellner (2010), in which Kellner argues United 93 (2006) to be the better film of the two, since it tends to stay away from typical Hollywood film formulas. Kellner explains how United 93 (2006) places a great emphasis on ordinary people being heroes and the government being an untrustworthy institution for citizens—things that are unprecedented in modern Hollywood. On the other hand, Kellner condemns World Trade Center (2006) because he characterizes it as being sentimental and he believes Stone fails to touch on the context and reasoning’s for the attacks in the first place. Thanouli disagrees with Kellner’s statements about World Trade Center (2006) because Greengrass’s film also did not explore the reasons behind the attacks, yet Stone is the only one who takes the blame.

Thanouli then categorizes the film’s similarities into three categories: plot construction, their preference for anti-spectacular or oblique framing of the action, and their depiction of “agents in crisis” (Thanouli, 2016, p. 302). United 93’s (2006) narrative structure uses crosscutting to show the various events that are taking place during the timeframe of the attacks, such as swapping through national air defense systems, to the Muslim characters, and to the other characters aboard flight 93. Stone’s film uses this technique similarly by switching back and forth through several different narrative paths. Stone’s film takes the audience through the life of the New York Port Police on September 11, to the collapse of the towers from various viewpoints, and to the grievance of family members during the same timespan. Additionally, both movies portray the images of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center in subtle ways, in order to avoid any sensationalist depiction of the images that may affect viewers. United 93 (2006) portrays the crashes by simply showing the planes’ tracking blips disappearing and the reactions of traffic controllers. World Trade Center (2006) represents the attacks by simply portraying a silhouette of the plane amongst buildings. Thanouli praises this use of restricted narrative in covering the 9/11 attacks, as it is unlike most other films and documentaries about 9/11. Whereas other 9/11 films cover the main events and attacks that have always been broadcasted, these two films place an emphasis on the subjective experiences that went untold at the time, thus finding a story in the bigger picture.

Thanouli continues to explain how both films emphasize the connection of humans and technology during 9/11. In United 93 (2006), the technology of the planes are often crosscut with humans in the airport to signal a connection, as well as illustrating the dependency of the humans on phones and credit cards when they are trying to revolt against the flight’s terrorists. World Trade Center (2006) similarly emphasizes the power of material objects with characters hooked on their television screens watching the tragedies of the day unfold. Thanouli continues to explain how the crisis of individual agency is something that is apparent in both films. In United 93 (2006), every episode of the plot, including the traffic controllers not being able to stop the hijackers, to the hijackers being hesitant about controlling the plane, and the military not being able to take significant action, all expose human error. Thanouli relates this to Thomas Elsaesser’s reading where Elsaesser describes the concept of “parapraxis”, or human error in speech, memory or action (Freudian slip) (Elsaesser, 2013). In relation to the film’s protagonists, Thanouli explains how they are all set into a series of events or missions in which they fail, but under incommensurable circumstances. For example, the characters on the flight in United 93 (2006) must deal with being behind on the information going on in the world during the hijacking, as well as how the characters in World Trade Center (2006) were unable to communicate with people outside of the rubble. Thanouli concludes her article by explaining that the events of 9/11 are tremendously difficult to exploit and portray in Hollywood cinema because of the aftermath that is now engrained in America’s history.

Thanouli’s article is very interesting and understandable from a reader’s perspective. One thing that I thought was exceptional was the way Thanouli related certain ideas to exact scenes in the films she mentioned to further her understanding. An example of this was when she discussed the subjective experiences portrayed in World Trade Center (2006), where she stated, “McLoughlin and his team experience the collapse of the buildings from below the ground, reversing entirely the widespread top-down view of the event disseminated in the media. The long dark sequences underground…reconstruct for the viewer an unreachable perspective” (Thanouli, 2016, p. 306). She describes this scene in detail to visually aid readers with an image that they can follow along with, inviting them to analyze the film with her.  I myself have watched both films, and anyone can as well to further understand the text. As an individual who was a mere child in 2001 when the 9/11 attacks happened, I have no recollection of memories concerning it. Film and video, especially documentaries, have been my main source of education about the events, and even those just touched the surface on the events that took place. Her explicit attention to detail when describing the films allows me to see more of 9/11 than what the media had simply shown, and I also was able to see that the events of 9/11 sprung more stories than the typical ones of terror and sadness.

Furthermore, I liked how Thanouli took a comparative approach to the two films in her article. Rather than simply breaking down each film and showing how they follow certain structures, she chose to compare and contrast them, giving readers a different perspective on both. For example, she compared the two films by stating,

In United 93 the episodic structure becomes more obvious thanks to the relentless crosscutting…United 93 is not merely about the eponymous flight that crashed in Pennsylvania…the rest depicts the national tragedy from the perspective of various air traffic control centers…. Similarly, the rescue of the two trapped officers under the Towers in World Trade Center is merely one episode…Oliver Stone plots his 9/11 movie in an episodic fashion with multiple characters and various potential narrative paths, loosening significantly the classical goal-oriented Hollywood formula. (Thanouli, 2016, p. 304)

By comparing the two films, both content and production wise, it gives readers a sense of relativity to how films are made, and how they do or do not follow certain structures. Thanouli did a fantastic job with separating the films from other 9/11 films, and I truly found it easy to understand. Initially, some of her writing was difficult to grasp, but after reading the article thoroughly and understanding the films’ parallels, it made more sense, which furthered my understanding as a whole. I did agree with Thanouli and Kellner’s opinion on how United 93 (2006) is a better film than World Trade Center (2006). After a thorough read, her article made me reflect on the films and why they thought this to be true. Thanouli’s work opened my eyes to a new political lens when viewing the film, and I agree with their statements about how United 93 (2006) uses less typical Hollywood film stereotypes than World Trade Center (2006), which ultimately makes it seem like a more intuitive work.

One thing that I think Thanouli could have touched upon more in the beginning was how the main events of 9/11, which were the terrorist attacks themselves, caused all these side narratives to form. I understand that Thanouli praised these two movies for covering narratives that were not normally covered about 9/11, but I still think the main events are crucial to provide context for her argument, and she should have discussed it more so the reader can get a full grasp of the situation.

Also, after doing some background research on Thanouli (“Eleftheria Thanouli,” 2014), I felt like her foreignness to the impacts of 9/11 hindered her ability to bring this article to its full potential. Although her past publications prove that she is knowledgeable about film studies, I felt as though she does not have much authority to discuss the sensitive effects of 9/11 on American politics and cinema since she is foreign to the events. Thanouli did not personally live in North America during this tragic time, and although the political landscape of America was projected all over the world after 9/11, it truly takes personal experience to fully understand its effects. When Thanouli states,

The extensive debates about trauma and memory that have been rehearsed in the academic and cinematic discourse…(Elsaesser 1996: 146‑150; Rosenstone 2006: 134‑153) seem to have instilled a certain knowingness in contemporary filmmakers about the difficulties with which one approaches the vanishing past. (Thanouli, 2016, p. 309)

Thanouli is not necessarily speaking from a qualitative research standpoint. She is basing her knowledge from what other writers have shared, and therefore her knowledge is limited. If someone who lived in the US during this time of political unrest was to discuss this same topic, they may have potentially been able to offer a better analysis of 9/11’s impact. Despite this, I still believe Thanouli did a great job with this analysis given her experiences, but I do feel if she had more first hand experience of 9/11, she would have much greater authority on the topic, which would make the article more meaningful.

Overall, Eleftheria Thanouli did a wonderful job highlighting the key strategies used in covering 9/11, a sensitive topic in film. She broke down the components of both film and the events into very understandable content that readers, especially moviegoers, would appreciate. Her critical analysis had some flaws, but she did an excellent job emphasizing the overall effects of 9/11 on the world and film. I think Thanouli’s article is a great read for anyone looking to learn more about the political and cultural effects of 9/11, especially in connection to cinema, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to further their knowledge in film and politics.

Works Cited

Burgoyne, R. (2008). The Hollywood Historical Film. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Eleftheria Thanouli. (2014). Retrieved March 2, 2017, from
Elsaesser, T. (1996). “Subject Positions, Speaking Positions: From Holocaust, Our Hitler, and Heimat to Shoah and Schindler’s List” in V. Sobchack (ed.) The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modern Event. New York: Routledge, pp. 145‑183.
Elsaesser, T. (2013). German Cinema: Terror and Trauma: Cultural Memory since 1945. New York: Routledge.
Kellner, D. (2010). Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush-Cheney Era. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Rosenstone, R. (2006). History on Film/ Film on History. Edinburgh Gate: Pearson.
Tzioumakis, Y., & Molloy, C. (2016). The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics. London: Routledge.

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