Years Later, Nonfiction Cinema Makes and Breaks Our Mythology of 9/11


The most defining moments of our age often become separated from history. Wednesday will be the 12th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. It has been over a decade, and yet we still have not entirely understood the way this most significant of 21st century moments fits into American history. Nor should we. With our current 24-hour media circus of immediate and constant reaction, it can be hard to remember that 12 years is not a very long time. We are really only on the cusp of fitting 9/11 into the wider human narrative and understanding the way it relates to the historical landscape.

Part of what obscures that picture is the mythology that we have crafted over the past decade. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Paul Greengrass’s United 93 is a stunning and valuable film, perhaps the best example of positive mythmaking around the events of 9/11 that we’ve seen. We need myths to cope, to maintain our identity and perhaps even make it stronger. Yet this grand characterization can also separate the event from history itself. Nonfiction narratives are faced with a problem of representation, how to articulate this American tragedy in a way that balances our impulse to mythologize and the importance of incorporating it into our larger history. They’ve had mixed success, but even the extension of the conversation is something of an accomplishment. In looking at how these films balance themselves, both making and reacting to the mythic memory of 9/11, a possible historical narrative begins to emerge.

On the whole, you can divide the corpus of 9/11 cinema into two categories: reverential homages to the victims of the attack and loopy conspiracy theories. The former includes not only films like United 93, but also recent documentaries like The Rugby Player and Out of the Clear Blue Sky (review). On the one hand, they continue to craft myths around their subjects, the victims of the tragedy. Yet they also seek to offer a sense of continuity into the post-9/11 world as a tribute to those whose lives were lost. The opposite end of the spectrum includes films like Zeitgeist and Loose Change, both of which seek to launch a truther movement. Their style is rough, usually a single rambling monologue accompanied by dramatic and illustrative images.

These two types of films sit in strong contrast, the most fascinating element of which is this: The documentaries that tell the mainstream story are much more bound by the history of the last decade. As a result, in spite of how much less “information” they include, they teach us more about the way we write our past. The more paranoid films, meanwhile, view the history of 9/11 and the last decade on the broadest possible terms, as part of hundreds and even thousands of years of politics and power. They try to counter mythology with other mythology, that of the grand conspiracy.

Zeitgeist begins thousands of years in the past. Its first third is compelling enough, temporarily eschewing contemporary events to discuss the connections between Jesus of Nazareth and eons of other “Sun God Messiahs.” Filmmaker Peter Joseph makes the point that Christianity basically ripped off a whole lot of pagan ideas in the creation of the Christ mythology, and it makes a whole lot of initial sense. The evidence he presents is entirely without context, but there’s a lot of it. What doesn’t make sense is the latter two thirds of the film, the full assault on the U.S. government’s narrative of 9/11 and a final section on a century-old international conspiracy of bankers.

The details are not worth our time, but it is interesting to note that Zeitgeist shares a few theories with Dylan Avery‘s Loose Change. The material of the “controlled demolition” theory is admittedly compelling at first, if only because of the very dramatic images. The facts that follow are mostly without context and have no validity, but that’s hardly interesting. What does stick out is Avery’s equal compulsion to hold 9/11 up against a whole century, opening with a conspiratorial reading of Hitler’s rise to power. The widest, most broad-minded readings of the events of September 11th, 2001, are those films that traffic in the strangest of notions. In crafting their arguments against what they perceive as the nationalist mythmaking of mainstream America, they find themselves making much stranger, darker legends of their own.

They look even bleaker when compared to the warm storytelling of their compassionate opposites. The Rugby Player is the story of Mark Bingham, the gay athlete and businessman who fought and died on flight United 93 (played by Cheyenne Jackson in Greengrass’s version). The way it tries to mythologize Bingham’s heroism is actually quite unremarkable, particularly in its early scenes of family lore and misty-eyed memory. Yet it casts the charismatic athlete’s relationship with his mother in such a way that the history of the last decade, after his tragic death, emerges as a dominant theme.

In 2002, a group of gay and bisexual rugby union teams formed the International Gay Rugby Association and Board and inaugurated their biennial competition, the Bingham Cup. In the decade since, Bingham’s mother has become a fierce advocate for gay rights, a long journey from her initial reticence when her son came out of the closet as a young man. The Rugby Player connects Bingham’s youth, the tragic events of 9/11 and his mother’s subsequent activism in a larger historical narrative that offers continuity to a life so unfairly cut short.

However, not every documentary tribute to the victims of the tragedy offers such a clear, productive historical narrative. Out of the Clear Blue Sky offers a chronicle that seems somehow trapped in amber. The film, which focuses on the particular tragedy of Cantor Fitzgerald, L.P. on the top five floors of One World Trade Center, is a fascinating example of historical stasis. Its storytelling is accurate, informative and emotional, but its perspective seems stuck between 2001 and 2007. Its heart is in the right place, but it seems to come from a world in which the “Great Recession” and Occupy Wall Street never happened. This is not to say that its corporate paternalism is somehow completely unjustified, but rather that there is a context lacking in the film despite its very clear dedication to a particular historical moment.

Myths can be necessary, cathartic responses to tragedy. They can also be misleading, confusing and counter-productive. Either way, they serve to take an event and place it somewhere outside of the historical narrative. This is why Bush and Cheney were able to so effectively use September 11th as a touchstone, simply naming it over and over again as part of their political strategy. If an event exists outside of the terrestrial human story, it can be neither impeached nor truly understood. This is probably what scares Joseph and Avery so much, causing them to collide 9/11 with as much history as they could muster in order to rein it in.

Yet that excessive approach is also inherently flawed. The integration of this most looming of American tragedies into our wider narrative has to come with a humbler sort of wisdom, one that is willing to engage with a recent and contested legacy. The Rugby Player begins to do just that. I can only assume that it will be joined by other nonfiction films of its sort in the years to come.

Every other week, our resident history buff will look at nonfiction representations of a major figure or event of the past. Join Daniel again in two weeks for another edition of Shapes of History.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.