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."
"Obviously we were sensitive to the subject and the timing," Sher says of the untitled World Trade Center movie. Sensitivity, adds Shamberg, meant "first, making sure the story was accurate -- that was very important to Oliver, too -- and second, meeting with people who had lost loved ones, people who survived and many community groups."
The studios were understandably skittish in the early days. In 2001, Warner Bros. famously delayed release of "Collateral Damage," concluding that its plot -- in which Arnold Schwarzenegger is a firefighter whose family is killed by a terrorist bombing -- hit too close to home. In 2002's "Spider-Man," scenes containing the twin towers were cut out of the movie. The ice was eventually broken by Michael Moore's 2004 documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," which showed the stunned reaction of onlookers to the disaster.
Perhaps audiences have for years been ready for a big-screen reprise of the 9/11 events. Television has long co-opted this material as fodder for jokes: Osama bin Laden popped up on "South Park" in November 2001 and has been a recurring figure of fun on "The Family Guy." More serious TV portrayals include Fox's popular "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland, a show teeming with Mideast plotters and cataclysmic events since 2001. The F/X network's "Rescue Me" follows the post-9/11 struggles of Denis Leary and his fellow New York firefighters. And Showtime's new "Sleeper Cell" is about a Muslim FBI agent (Michael Ealy) who infiltrates a radical Islamic group in Los Angeles. This fall, ABC will unveil a currently untitled miniseries starring Harvey Keitel as John O'Neill, a former FBI agent whose warnings about the al Qaeda attacks were largely ignored.
Independent films brought the topic into stark relief as early as 2002, with the French-made "11'09"01" -- which offered prickly interpretations of the epochal events with nine-minute shorts from 11 international directors, including Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Mira Nair and Sean Penn. It was released overseas on the first anniversary of 9/11 but failed to attract an American distributor until 2003. Even then it was released only in a few cities. (Some American critics described it as too brutal, too early.)
This and other more recent independent films echo the sense of the global divisiveness that followed the terrorist attacks.
Addressing those growing divisions was precisely Sally Potter's intent in her 2004 film, "Yes," about a Lebanese surgeon and an Irish-born American biologist whose extramarital affair becomes a series of lengthy debates about their ideological and cultural differences. The British filmmaker -- who also made 1992's "Orlando" -- says the movie, which she started writing in the days after the attacks, reflected her "urgent need to respond to the rapid demonization of the Arabic world in the West and to the parallel wave of hatred against America."
Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad wanted to personalize the faces behind those jihad masks with 2005's "Paradise Now," in which two endearing Palestinians are ordered to become suicide bombers. The dilemma is strongest for one of the bombers, who has just fallen in love. "I created art," says Abu-Assad, "because I don't want to use the language of violence."
Helping Americans understand the anger behind suicide bombings was the underlying purpose in "The War Within," a 2005 indie by American Joseph Castelo and Pakistani American Ayad Akhtar. In the film, a Pakistani American family is shocked to learn its soft-spoken houseguest from the old country is a terrorist. Akhtar, who grew up in a secular Muslim household in Milwaukee, says that as he "reflected on it for weeks and months, a part of me wasn't surprised [by the attacks], which was its own shock. I was aware of a certain degree of discontent in the Asian community. It seemed there was a film to be made which would, somehow, start a dialogue or an investigation about what it was that happened and why this was not a surprise."
If the "why" of 9/11 seems to be the controlling question for many independent filmmakers, there are plenty of other emotional avenues that will resonate with audiences, says "102 Minutes" screenwriter Ray. "I do think, as a nation, we have to step back and look at the why, but this film is not the proper vehicle for that. . . . I can promise you that nobody on their way down that stairwell was wondering if, somehow, the Gulf War had brought this on."
Albert Brooks, who lampooned postmodern American existence in such films as "Real Life" and "Lost in America," takes a satiric path this February with "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," a movie that falls somewhere in between the indie and studio categories. Brooks, who wrote and directed, plays a comedian sent by the State Department -- seeking ways to improve relations with the post-9/11 Muslim world -- to Pakistan and India to understand the region's sense of humor.
This being a Brooks movie, that well-intentioned mission falls flat on its feet. (Sony, the film's original distributor, withdrew its support when the filmmaker refused to change the provocative title. Warner Independent Pictures is now releasing the movie.)
"I refuse to believe a billion and a half Muslims want to kill us," says Brooks. "The subject of this movie -- the thought of finding something out about a person that isn't about where they're hiding and how to bomb them -- is important." The point of the title, he says, "is to prick the balloon a little bit and let a little of the scary air out. That has to be done before any substantial repair can be made. I'm not a great historian, but I do believe the last sign of any civilization that goes down for the count is the complete absence of humor."
Perhaps Gaghan's "Syriana" attains the best balance of global perspective and popcorn emotion. Surely, this is in part a result of his dedicated field research in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Switzerland, Lebanon, Syria, Dubai and North Africa. Listening to a number of players directly or indirectly linked to the oil industry, he was able to piece together the connections he sought between that realm and the post-9/11 world.
"I've already got the American perspective wired," says Gaghan. "You know: 'We wear the white hat. We're number one. You should be so lucky that we come over and help you.' I understand that part -- I was born in Kentucky. But anywhere I found people who could take their own temperature while taking our temperature, I heard them so much more easily. In any art form, it's vital to get into this interstice and realize the more you learn, the less black and white it is."