Sunday, September 23, 2012

Post-9/11 on the Big Screen

After years of hearing the buzz from nearly ever film website and podcast on my daily rotation, I decided to watch Margaret during the week of the latest 9/11 anniversary.  The film was actually shot years ago (so long ago that they almost - almost - get away with casting Anna Paquin as a high school student ... but honestly, when I saw the first shot of her in the classroom, all I could think of was the running joke in the recent 21 Jump Street reboot that 20-something guys look nothing like teenagers).  Yet, after a series of post-production lawsuits spurred by studio meddling with the final cut, the release date shifted from somewhere in 2006 to 2011.  The battle over editing calls to mind Terry Gilliam's epic struggle with his studio over Brazil, and while it's too early to tell if Margaret deserves that top shelf level of comparison, I will say it's among the best films I've seen over the past few years, easily.

I'm going to pass on posting a trailer to encourage going in blind.  Any clip you might see in advance is likely to give you the wrong impression of what this film is.  On that note, what follows is mostly spoiler-free except in the vaguest of terms.

A plot summary would be pointless (and besides the point), but if you've seen A Separation, you should have a sense of the pace and rhythm of the film.  (And if you haven't seen A Separation yet, you've got the best film of 2011 to look forward to.)  Both films center on an accident, which - in an almost Rashomon-like fashion, splinters out into multiple, conflicting interpretations defying any easy resolution.  And like A Separation (and Rashomon), Margaret is as much about the limits of language as it is about plot.  Nearly every character, no matter how minor, comes with a discernible point of view. And while every action taken in the movie makes sense in context, it's equal parts relatable and deeply frustrating (just like real life) to watch people seeking the same ends yet unable to get through a conversation without nearly coming to blows over their personality differences.  It is, in that respect, the most riveting Samuel Beckett or Jean-Paul Sartre adaptation I can imagine.

But this post is called "Post-9/11", so what's the connection?  Without giving anything away (if that's even possible with a dialogue-centered film such as this), the film occurs deliberately in the shadow of 9/11.  None the more so than in a series of classroom scenes in which the (ostensible) protagonist engages in shouting matches with an Arab-American classmate over the morality of invading Middle Eastern countries and the culpability of an entire subcontinent for the actions of a few.  But lest you think this is merely a big screen adaptation of some political blog screed, wearing its thesis on its sleeve and setting up straw men just to swat them down, you might find yourself uncomfortably recognizing yourself on screen no matter what your political persuasion - not so much because of the substance of the arguments but by manner in which the characters consistently talk (shout, really) right past each other.

This is a film about confronting tragedy and seeking to find some order and reason in the aftermath.  It is about how, even when we put our best intentions forward, our emotions and insecurities undermine our efforts to reach an understanding with each other.  What makes Margaret more than a blunt morality drama (in the vein of, let's say Traffic or Crash), is that the characters aren't simply stand-ins for reductionist observations about human behavior.  There isn't a black character who is the innocent victim of racism in one scene only to exhibit racist tendencies towards Latinos in the next, no drug enforcement agent whose kids engage in illegal drugs behind his back, nothing so embarrassingly smug in its message.  The only comparable "victim of racism who's also a racist" trope in Margaret happens so subtly that you may not put it together until after the film is over.  This is a film that functions as equal parts human drama and college ethics course primer (and one of a handful of instances in which I've seen civil procedure represented both accurately and entertainingly on screen).

I won't gush any more here - there's enough of that on the internet already for this film - but with Margaret and the latest 9/11 anniversary on my mind, I'll leave with a few more 9/11-related films and television I'd recommend if you're in a reflective mood:
  • 25th Hour - one of Spike Lee's best films, this is another movie that isn't really about 9/11 per se, but by framing the opening scene with beautiful tracking shots of the Twin Towers light memorial, Lee invites the viewer to connect the national mood following 9/11 - after the waves of shock, horror and anger gave way to a more reflective mood - with the underlying plot.  This brutally honest tale of confronting one's past, mourning the loss of what could have been, and taking responsibility for your shortcomings could not have come at a better time than it did.
  • War of the Worlds - this widely derided Spielberg-Cruise film is one of my favorite of their films (certainly their best collaboration).  From the sheer incomprehensibility of the alien's first attack, to the ash covering Cruise as he flees in terror, to the claustrophobia and paranoia as people huddle together afterward, this film captures fear of the unknown like only a master such as Spielberg can.
  • United 93 - among the handful of films that I could barely make it through (alongside Funny Games and Seven), Paul Greengrass amazingly pulls off a film simultaneously ghastly for what it captures and reverential (inspiring even) to the reality of what - by all available records - actually occurred that day.
  • Homeland - while this Showtime series might be the closest entry on this list to what some might call "exploitative" in evoking 9/11 for entertainment purposes, it's more than just pulpy terrorism drama in the vein of 24.  This is not jingoistic porn for D.C. hawks and armchair warriors who are convinced that if we'd just pulled out enough toenails and shocked enough testicles, we could've prevented 9/11.  Nor does the show rely (entirely) on liberal sentimentality.  While keeping the audience on edge and guessing over the terrorist plot at the center, the show deftly sneaks up on the audience with a critique far more searing about the limits of our national anti-terror efforts, how personality conflicts and professional aspirations compromise our safety, and the likely reality that whether or not the next attack on U.S. soil succeeds will probably have as much to do with random chance as it does with the effectiveness of our security apparatuses.  I'll say it - this is "the thinking person's 24", and if there's going to be show exploiting post-9/11 hysteria, it might as well be smart exploitation.
I'm tempted to add Beast of the Southern Wild to that list, since the film is so much about perseverance through apocalyptic-level tragedy, but the story is so overtly tied to New Orleans and
Katrina that it should be left at that.  In any event, it's a general recommend for 2012.  Otherwise, there's bound to be other films (not to mention books, plays, comics and so on) to add to this list.  Please drop a comment if you have anything to recommend.

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