How 9/11 changed cinema

Posted on: 15 September 2021 by Department of Languages, Cultures and Film in 2021 posts

Image of the Conversation article.

Dr Maria Flood, lecturer in World Cinema, collaborated with Professor Micheal Frank from the University of Zurich to discuss and explore how 9/11 impacted cinema in an article for The Conversation. Below are some excerpts from the piece.

One of the most common responses to the events of September 11 2001, both among witnesses on the scene and more distant commentators, was that the destruction of the World Trade Center was like something only seen in the movies. This famously prompted veteran director Robert Altman to declare that 9/11 was an instance of life imitating art: “The movies set the pattern, and these people have copied the movies.”

If the terrorist attacks had appeared like a movie, then the immediate response of Hollywood was that films released in the aftermath of the event should not be too much like 9/11. Representations of the World Trade Center became taboo. The original teaser trailer for Spider-Man (2001) showing the Twin Towers was withdrawn, while the climactic final scene of Men in Black II (2002) had to be reshot. For various other releases, the Twin Towers were erased in post-production.

The figure of the terrorist has also evolved in post-9/11 cinema. In the 1980s and 1990s, terrorists that were coded as Muslim or Arabic in films like True Lies existed alongside the Germanic villains of Die Hard or the IRA man found in films like The Devil’s Own and The Crying Game. Yet after 9/11, terrorism is mainly equated with jihadism in Hollywood films, where terrorists are often denied any deep characterisation and contrasted with US heroes.

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014) is a prime example of this. Telling the story of Chris Kyle, one of the most lethal snipers in US military history, the film split critics, with the left-wing press describing it as Republican propaganda, while the right-leaning National Review praising the movie for capturing “the true nature of the enemy” – the Iraqis that the central character calls “savages”.

Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its predominantly youthful viewership, has allegorically hinted at the failures of the “war on terror”. Its most recent television spin-off, Loki (2021), appears to question the validity of some of the language that surrounded 9/11 and what started out as “Operation Enduring Freedom”. On the afternoon of 9/11, George W. Bush stated that “freedom itself was attacked this morning” – Loki challenges the very notion of liberation, saying “the first and most oppressive lie ever uttered was the song of freedom”.

And now as the world witnesses the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban within days of the US and British troop withdrawal, it remains to be seen how Hollywood will treat not only 9/11, but its ongoing ramifications – which even the Hollywood dream machine may struggle to spin into a spectacle of freedom and victory.

Read the full article here.

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Study in the Department of Languages,Cultures and Film the University of Liverpool.