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Five years ago, before the world shifted in the face of terrorist attacks against the U.S., it was business as usual for Hollywood.
Americans were coming off a summer’s worth of easygoing blockbusters – comedies, light dramas, the occasional remake, the expected sequel. At the time, nothing about the season seemed remarkable.
But now, taken into context, it’s interesting to note just how culturally significant the summer of 2001 has become.
It was then that Hollywood released “Pearl Harbor,” a terrible movie starring Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale in what essentially was a sanitized, white-washed version of history.
Appearing in theaters 60 years after Japan’s attack, “Pearl Harbor” was Hollywood’s response to less-angry times; we had come to terms with Japan and it showed in how the movie softened that country’s involvement in the war.
In an effort to offend as few people as possible – and to help secure attendance abroad – the film presented the Japanese as a people who just did what they had to do to protect their own interests and to ensure they didn’t run out of oil after the U.S. cut them off. Never in the movie was there mention of world domination. That unsavory part of history was axed.
What was central to the movie wasn’t war, but love and romance, the three-hankie sort, enveloped in prose so purple it might as well have been a bruise.
The best thing that now can be said about “Pearl Harbor” is that it had the world talking about a time in our history that can never be forgotten. What’s unfortunate about the movie is that it was so caught up in the nostalgia of the time, it saw it through cheesecloth.
Nobody in it was memorable and neither were the bombs, dropped from the heavens by an enemy so benign the film never left a lasting impression. For a movie that purported to be about a specific day in history, that history was stretched in an all-out effort to stretch your entertainment dollar.
Then everything changed.
Only months after the film’s release came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Suddenly, there was no room for the balm of nostalgia – clarity was in order. Startled into action, Hollywood took stock. What to do? How to handle the situation when the store was in jeopardy? What was in the pipeline that might lose the studios money should their product offend?
The initial response was swift and from the gut. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s terrorist movie “Collateral Damage” was pushed back to a later date, as were “Big Trouble,” “Heist” and “Sidewalks of New York,” all of which featured scenes or themes considered questionable. Jackie Chan’s movie about blowing up the World Trade Center, “Nosebleed,” was canceled outright, as was Jennifer Lopez’s “Tick Tock,” which was about terrorists threatening to blow up a shopping mall.
Since the promotional material for the new “Spider-Man” movie featured images of Spider-Man building a web between the Twin Towers, that also was nixed. Television followed suit, with “Sex and the City” among the first to wipe any trace of the towers from the show’s opening credits; the Chrysler Building took their place. Later, an episode of “The Simpsons” wasn’t aired because it featured an animated version of the towers. When it finally was shown, you barely noticed them.
And so it went. Since Hollywood felt most Americans couldn’t handle seeing the towers as they had been, they wiped them out, which in the heat of the moment is understandable given the rawness of the emotions involved, but which in hindsight proves the height of irony.
By digitally removing the buildings, Hollywood essentially assisted the terrorists in ridding lower Manhattan of its iconic landmarks. It’s as if Tinseltown, fearing a backlash, created its own sort of cultural terrorism.
With the exception of Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which assailed the Bush administration for its handling of the events, and the current, intensely controversial ABC film “The Path to 9/11,” which reportedly claims that the Clinton administration allowed Osama bin Laden to escape under its watch, the movies that have been made in the wake of the attacks have mostly been safe.
Films such as “WTC: The First 24 Hours,” for instance, or the excellent French documentary “9/11” and Nina Davenport’s “Parallel Lines” have dealt solely in fact. Spike Lee’s “The 25th Hour” was the first commercial film to take place in a post-Sept. 11 world (and to use it as a metaphor for a city lost in the haze of transition), with “Crash” following suit. The more recent “Flight 93,” “United 93” and “World Trade Center” involve creative license taken with the telling of each, but nothing overt, nothing that could possibly offend.
It’s still too soon for mythmaking.
It’s the mythmaking that brings us back to “Pearl Harbor.” If movies have the power to make us socially aware, to bring us together, to give us a common bond and to put the world into some strange sort of perspective, as “United 93” and “World Trade Center” do, they also can alter the past into a shape that softens the blow of the truth. That’s what “Pearl Harbor” did, and that’s what will happen again.
Sixty years from now, there will be movies about the 2001 terrorist attacks that will use those events as a backdrop for entertainment. History tells us that’s a fact. Hollywood is, after all, in the business of entertainment, and in war are all the elements for a good story.
Some of us might not live to see such a movie, and right now most of us don’t want to think about it, but one day someone who never lived through the horror of Sept. 11 and thus could never fully comprehend the emotional devastation left in its wake, will make a movie in which a man and woman meet while boarding United Flight 93, fall in love while waiting on the tarmac, then bond as they rise up spectacularly against the terrorists. The movie either will be a conceptual and artistic failure, as “Pearl Harbor” was, or, the way the world is going, it could very well win every imaginable award.
Visit www.weekinrewind.com, the archive of BDN film critic Christopher Smith’s reviews, which appear Mondays in Discovering, Fridays in Happening, and Weekends in Television. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.