Hollywood Zooms In On a Post-9/11 World

Stephen Gaghan's thriller
Stephen Gaghan's thriller "Syriana," starring George Clooney, is the leading edge of a wave of 9/11 films that are headed to the big screen. (By Glen Wilson -- Warner Bros.)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 10, 2005

When filmmaker Stephen Gaghan started writing "Syriana," the just-released political thriller about the global oil industry, it was early 2002 and the World Trade Center was rubble. President Bush had declared war on terror. Gaghan felt like a kid in a car that was suddenly accelerating around a sharp curve.

"I'm in the back seat, holding on," recalls Gaghan, "and I'm thinking, 'Where are we going? What does this mean?' " The post-9/11 world is the gritty backdrop for his multilayered plot, which explores the complex relationship between the West and the Middle East, between oil interests and terrorists and the CIA -- all maneuvering for power. Gaghan, who spent three years researching narco-terrorism for his 2000 screenplay, "Traffic," says that even though "Syriana" includes only one fleeting mention of Sept. 11, 2001, "9/11 is all over it."

Gaghan's movie, which he also directed, leads a convoy of high-profile Hollywood movies -- in the wake of dozens of independent ones on the topic -- bearing the emotional freight of a world changed by that fateful day. Unlike "Syriana," these studio productions plunge directly into the trauma of that day, with minute-by-minute depictions of the actions taken by victims, heroes and stunned observers. From early descriptions, they seem to offer a big patriotic hug for American audiences, along with high-production-value closure.

As major studios tend to do with most themes of national or historic significance -- think "Pearl Harbor," "Platoon" or "Philadelphia" -- these new films are star-driven spectacles intended to uplift audiences and shine a spotlight on the family-loving heroes who made a difference.

While these studio movies pay tribute to the slain and resolute on home soil, independent films on the topic have scoured the globe for stories among the living, often in distant corners where "the enemy" lurks close at hand. If Hollywood is the main announcer behind the console, the independents are the color commentators in the field.

So will this Hollywood slate of 9/11 films be more than high-impact flag-waving?

"It's the obligation of the artist to tell the stories of civilization in ways that are not forgotten," says Michael Shamberg, who, with partner Stacey Sher, is producing an as-yet-untitled film about two Port Authority police officers (one of them to be played by Nicolas Cage) who are among the last survivors pulled from the World Trade Center. Oliver Stone directed the movie, scheduled for release in August, a month before the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Continues Shamberg: "I'm not saying we are making 'The Odyssey' or Shakespeare, but it is the obligation of the storytellers to tell the events and preserve the memory, so we can learn from them and take hope from them."

Universal Pictures has chosen that lonely field in Pennsylvania for its big 9/11 production. With the British company Working Title, it is making "Flight 93," a suspense-filled drama due out next spring about the passengers who resisted their captors, forcing the plane down before it could reach Washington. Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Supremacy") wrote the treatment and is directing.

And then there's Sony's "102 Minutes" -- based on the bestseller of the same name by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn -- which re-creates the time span between Flight 11's crash into the first tower and its collapse.

"It's about civilian heroism," says "102 Minutes" screenwriter Billy Ray, who wrote and directed "Shattered Glass" and co-wrote "Flightplan," the recent, terror-in-the-skies thriller. "It's about the important task placed before the rescuers, and it's also about the idea that -- while terrorists killed a lot of people that day -- the structural nature of the buildings themselves contributed to the disaster. I don't think that story has been told."

The sudden flurry of studio pictures on this topic comes in part from the time it takes to pull together major productions (about two to five years) but perhaps also from a general consensus in Hollywood that the nation's mourning period is over. Finding the appropriate time to release his film, says Ray, "has been the primary topic of every conversation regarding this movie."

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