This week's “Now and Then” column started out comparing and contrasting two movies about assassins — Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011) and Léon: the Professional (Luc Besson, 1994)—and ended up ruminating on 9/11. Trailers below:
Life and culture are too messy to be divided into easy categories like “Before” and “After,” but for all the continuities in the way films are made and viewed, a long view of the last decade reveals some important, if subtle, shifts. Watching the network news coverage of September 11 to prepare for this column, I was reminded of how much we didn’t know that day, how much our fear stemmed from no longer being able to control the course of events.
What struck me screening Hanna and Léon this week, as the media revved up its commemorations of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, is how they could feel so different from each other, all because of the world in which we watch them. I am reminded that ten years ago today we woke up not quite knowing how the future would look. I am reminded of what comes after.
The proliferation of superhero movies and fantasy worlds, for instance, may speak to a need for escape, but these are dim places to escape to. Since 9/11, even our fantasies are violent. Michiko Kakutani, in a piece for the Times this week, is right to say “it’s too easy… to see every recent pop culture phenomenon as a metaphor for combating terrorism,” yet the bleakness of the decade’s most successful franchises is impossible to ignore. Both the Harry Potter films and The Lord of the Rings trilogy end happily, but they require a series of apocalyptic battles to get there; Batman, which in the ’90s spoke to corruption and decay in the neglected inner cities of the Reagan/Bush era, now envisions a world made decrepit by a never-ending battle with insane terrorists.
It’s the homegrown western, though, that most forcefully suggests how film and television have changed. The genre has always dealt with big questions about who we are and who we want to be. The last ten years have seen it revitalized, which is no surprise: the two main cycles of the genre preceding this one have also come at times of fear and unease, during the Great Depression/World War II and then the Vietnam War. Westerns never go away, but the major ones from the last decade — There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, and Brokeback Mountain, to name just three — constitute a significant departure in quantity and quality from the previous decade.
In an oblique way, I think these new westerns reflect the difference between Hanna and Léon. The former cannot ignore the globalization of killing, while the latter seems almost innocent in its focus on slimy DEA officials and a sympathetic hitman in New York. The westerns of the past decade can’t ignore the killing either: they are, if nothing else, about innocence lost, and their resurgence speaks to how we have attempted to deal with the world to which we woke on September 12, 2001. Whether set in the recent or distant past, each grapples with how democracy and capitalism function on frontiers. More vitally, they imply that democracy’s finest feature is that it protects the ability to criticize, argue, question, be heard. They show us that we may falter in trying to make good on this promise, but that there still remains some valor in the trying.
The best film about 9/11 treated the fateful day with stirring immediacy: United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006) captures the organic, natural bravery that we can muster at our best, even in a dark hour. It is a frightening, draining film — I remember seeing it on opening weekend and feeling as though the wind had been knocked out me — but it's also a fitting memorial to all the people that day who showed the utmost courage in the face of a scary new world.
In the past decade, I suppose, the cinema has matched this broader world, trying to balance its critique of where we’ve gone awry with a depiction of what can happen when we follow our better angels. United 93, for its part, is entirely about the latter, and rightfully so. Reading about the 40 heroes of United 93 this week, the most poignant aspect for me was how their courage came about. It wasn’t formal or planned, but they voted to change the course of events. There’s still something to be learned from that, ten years into what came after.
[United 93 trailer and photo courtesy of Paramount Universal; Hanna trailer courtesy of Focus Features; Léon: the Professional trailer via LoveExposure on YouTube; No Country for Old Men photo via Cinematic Intelligence Agency]