'The Conspirator' is a post-9/11 message movie. Are you as tired of post-9/11 message movies as I am?

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We’re a little over four months away from the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. (Imagining that upcoming media commemoration, I can hear the drone of the talking heads and see the instant-replay World Trade Center apocalypse footage now.) Along with that somber day of remembrance, there will be another, less important, but still noteworthy anniversary: This fall will mark 10 years of 9/11 movies. Of course, they didn’t start that day — though in a sense, you could argue that they did. The endless tape-loop footage of the planes crashing into the towers, the towers collapsing, the chaos and the horror, all added up to a kind of small-screen movie of the event, one that has taken up a permanent residence in our minds.

Nevertheless, I’m really talking about big, earnest Hollywood movies with big, earnest Hollywood messages, the kind that have tried to “make sense” of the tragedy and its aftermath, to explore the realities of the post-9/11 world by stuffing bits and pieces of it into mournful and tidy dramatic forms. I’m talking about pictures like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006), or Reign Over Me (2007), starring a sad-sack Adam Sandler (looking like he’s been made up for some VH1 production of The Bob Dylan Story) as a man who lost his family on 9/11, or the Jake Gyllenhaal dragged-out-of-the-headlines torture drama Rendition (2007), or political action muckrakers like The Kingdom (2007) and Green Zone (2010). (For the record, I’m not talking about documentaries, which are another ballgame. Yes, some of them have mattered a lot. But that’s a whole other column.)

The latest of these well-meaning attempts to mold 9/11 and its aftermath into a piece of dramatic entertainment is Robert Redford’s The Conspirator. On the surface, you might not even think that’s so, since the movie is a courtroom drama set 150 years ago, just after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Yet Redford uses that other rending national tragedy as a giant metaphor. The movie is about a young Civil War hero, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who is assigned, as an inexperienced Washington lawyer, to defend a woman, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who’s accused of being part of a conspiracy to kill the president. It doesn’t take Aiken long to figure out that the proceeding is really a sham, a show trial — that she’s going to be found guilty, regardless of the facts, and that it’s all part of the government’s attempt to give the nation closure through an officially sanctioned act of legal vengeance.

In The Conspirator, Redford goes back to one of the only events in American history that tore at the country’s identity as violently as 9/11 did. And he demonstrates that what happened back then, during the trial of Mary Surratt, amounted to the squashing of rights, the twisting of protocol, the suspension of justice for “the sake of the nation.” Edwin Stanton, played by Kevin Kline, was the Secretary of War under Lincoln, and he makes the argument for why Mary must be found guilty (even though she is, at least in the movie, innocent). He becomes the film’s version of Dick Cheney, taking the low road of force over constitutional safeguard. And Aiken, the last-honest-man hero (played by McAvoy with a lively glint of moral passion), realizes that if he doesn’t fight this bureaucratic railroading, he’s colluding in the destruction of the American system, the American way. The movie’s message is: In America, the ends do not — cannot — justify the means. That, the film says, is the meaning of America. Redford clearly intends this message as a commentary on all the legally dicey things that have gone on in the aftermath of 9/11: the detaining of terrorist suspects, with little or no evidence, and with no representation or deadline, in the prison at Guantánamo; the underground use of torture techniques that violate articles of the Geneva Convention; the willingness to suspend the law for the sake of an anti-terror, we-fight-fire-with-fire absolutism.

I agree, wholeheartedly, with everything that The Conspirator is saying. Yet the movie is stiff and more than a little dull, and, yes, it’s way too preachy. It felt like a lesson I didn’t need to learn. Watching the film hit me over the head with its burning topical themes, I began to realize that I’d had it with 9/11 message movies. Remember when people used to say “too soon?” Well now, at the risk of sounding politically insensitive, I was thinking: too far in the past. And, just maybe, a little too morally self-satisfied. I began to feel that the attempt by Hollywood movies to rouse the public to “action” has become its own form of complacency.

After close to a decade of 9/11 movies, I’m of two minds. Most of these movies, let’s be honest, were not very good, and they’ve had little or no impact. It’s tempting to draw a link between those two things. Yet there was one great, seismic dramatic feature that arose out of 9/11. That was Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006), which came out five years ago this week. It’s a movie that should have been an event; at the time, I imagined that people would flock to it for a kind of catharsis. It was brilliantly executed, it was neither too soon nor too late, and — small miracle — it was free of boilerplate liberal politics. It simply put you aboard that plane, dramatizing the courage of ordinary Americans in an impossible situation, letting the meanings trickle up from the dread-fueled action. And guess what? American moviegoers didn’t give a damn. They voted at the box office, and what they said is: We don’t really want to see 9/11 movies. Even if they’re this good.

There will probably never be another 9/11 movie as powerful as United 93. Yet there may well be others as middling as The Conspirator, which isn’t even Redford’s first big-screen brush with 9/11. That would be Lions for Lambs (2007), his watchable but second-rate combat Rashomon about the war in Afghanistan. I sound like I’m down on Redford, but really, I’m a major fan of what he has done as a filmmaker. His best movies — Ordinary People, Quiz Show — were galvanizing, because they took us behind the scenes of things (the intense personal drama of psychotherapy, the twisting of reality on television) that movies hadn’t fully shown us before. I’d like to see him do that again. But before Redford, or anyone else, makes another movie about 9/11, they would do well to make sure they’ve got something to say that we don’t already know.

So what are your feelings about 9/11 movies? Have any of them meant anything to you? And as the anniversary approaches, is there a topic emerging from the post-9/11 world that you’d like to see Hollywood tackle?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman


Comments (109 total) Add your comment
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  • Jon

    Post 9/11 movies have been sketchy (and the less said about Iraq wars the better) but I’m curious to see how the US reflect 10 years after the event. It certainly isn’t the victim anymore, that’s for damn sure.

    • Mark

      Wait, what?

      • @ Mark

        Are you really that illiterate?

      • rich

        911 was a false flag opperation by our government-go read jesse venturas new book-go fight for our government and you fight for evil. simple as that

      • Rush

        The wrestler?

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    • Emma

      That’s a load of crap Jon. “Isn’t the victim anymore”? Tell that to my friend whose father never came home.

      • winston

        I am very sorry for your friend’s father. As I am for the 1.5 million people we are estimated to have slaughtered so far in the middle east. Just imagine the grand majority were completely innocent men women and children.

        You should look up the great American Hero Ehrin Watada – That is what any proper soldier should have done. But most are not as aware, serious, well educated and brave as Mr Watada obviously is.

    • Mike

      Who is the victim? Do we define victim by racial group or nationality? Seems pretty ignorant to me.

  • Cranky Owen? Is baby keeping you awake at night?

    I don’t dig this. Normally you are so sharp. But on this you are off. Sure, that movie blows (as did “Lion for Lambs”). But how that makes post 9/11 movies irrelevant, or proof that they are too saturated, or late doesn’t make sense. This isn’t like, say, the zombie genre… or even westerns… both of which are overdone, overplayed, etc. My issue with post-9/11 movies is that they are so underdeveloped that they have failed to materialize as a genre. With the exception of United 93, these movies lack a dramatic thrust. I don’t think it is complacency so much as fear. A real post 9/11 movie would need to show us things that the MPAA would probably never allow us to see: the gruesome violence, terrorists as main characters and not as 2-D cartoon characters, etc. So if you are getting sick of these movies, maybe it is because you are REALLY sick of Hollywood not having the guts to tackle this event like, say, the way Hollywood USED to tackle Vietnam. It’s what missing in Hollywood, not in this sub-genre (which I contend never became one to begin with). But that doesn’t mean we need an Oliver Stone version of Platoon about 9/11. Probably what we need is a Hitchcock (and Hollywood has NO one like Hitch, and if you say DePalma I will slap your wrist…lol…he is NOT anything like Hitch). We need someone who ‘gets’ how the world has changed because of 9/11. We need someone who isn’t intellectually stuck in the 20th century (like Redford is) and someone who ‘sees’ the 21st century. We need ‘a Hitchcock’, someone who can make films of “pure cinema” who can make the next Psycho or something like that, a film that ‘physically’ captures in its form and design the post 9/11 world. That said, I agree that ‘message movies’ are WAY over played. And maybe THAT is the REAL problem of post 9/11 films. They are just message movies with the “insert-message-here” convertor belt mentality of an assembly line system. Whether its 9/11 or American racism or drugs, the problem is the design of these movies. My hope is that we will someday see a REAL movie, a thriller that dares to go beyond the message movie formula and has the guts to show us the ruins of the world we really live in. My 2 cents.

  • jmcg

    I think the writer of this just wanted to write a 9/11 piece-he should have just stopped at “on the surface, you might not think that’s so” because I think its false to try to equate Conspirator as just another 9/11 movie. I know the aftermath of 9/11 might be the most recent example of movies about the American rule of law. I think a simpler and broader view should be taken–the theme is how the Justice system has been twisted. I mean, how many movies, tv shows, etc have we seen about how people have overcome a wrongful conviction, the railroading of suspects, defendants, and witnesses–the answer is tons because it is a theme/story that people like to see played out in movies. The Assassination of Lincoln and 9/11 are true events that had real-life consequences, none bigger than what has resulted from the justice system–which makes good drama. To find any other connection than that is simply stupid.

  • Bill

    What I’m tired of are post-modern reviewers who slam any movie that has ambition or something to say about the world as pretentious and boring. Any movie that aims higher than Knocked Up is consigned to the trash bin by you guys.

    • Ethan

      Ambition doesn’t equal quality necessarily. You can have something to say about the world and make a great movie about it. Or you can have something to say about the world and make a movie too inept to make you care about that important topic. I don’t think Owen would fall in the category of a post-modern reviewer slamming any movie with ambition or something to say, his reviews definitely demonstrate otherwise. He just didn’t like The Conspirator.

    • Tori

      Amen, brother Bill!

  • Dean Cummings

    Owen, you know your movies and are on target with critiques but how can you be tired of 9/11 films when they are very few which take on the political aftermath directly? Is it too much to ask for to have an intelligent conversation about uncomfortable and complex issues? I’m not a fan of directors who personal political agendas but without the Oliver Stone’s there might not be a way to share the feelings of a foot soldier or without a Steven Spielberg to comprehend the horrors of Normandy.

    9/11 is hard to grasp at times and it should require us to speak more critically of politics involved because of it. You wrote it yourself, 150 years ago the Constitution was questioned because of the trial of the conspirators and though it seems irrelevant, it isn’t. Good, bad or indifferent history repeats itself. Less we forget, our conversations do not all need to be all about how we feel and imagery, but cerebral discourse. From what I gather, Redford’s film was financed by the American Film Company (a history channel stickler for historical accuracy) which causes it to be victim of its own factual percision. Regardless of the quality of the film, the story of Mary Surratt and her son is both political charged and personally tragic. Would you let your mother die for your crime? That’s what the world thought of David Surratt. And she did. It appears the government executed the first woman to make an example and at the same time try to flush out the real criminal. (Enough said, you saw the movie)

    Truly you can not be saying, the lessons of history or recent history are not worth another perspective. We have a generation right now oblivious to the sacrifices of individuals fighting three wars. And the only angst they have is getting on a plane and being delayed. I say bring on the films which bring difficult issues, whether they are on target dramatically or not, at least there are voices reminding us of the complexities of democracies.

    Historically directors from John Ford to Sidney Lumet to Mel Gibson…have not stopped trying to flesh out the costs of freedom. It may take 50 years after an event (Spielberg with Schindler’s List) for a film to galvanize the experience for another generation, but to say there were too many holocaust films before then, may be a bit presumptious.

  • katie

    I want to point out the fallacy of equating Mary Surratt with enemy combatants held at Gitmo (which many people seem to be doing). Surratt was an American citizen! KSM or 9/11 co-conspirators are not US citizens. Additionally, many people held at Gitmo were picked up on foreign battlefields and not in the US. I think it’s silly and simple minded for Redford to imply the situation today is the same as it was for Mary Surratt.

    • asher

      I don’t know if this was your intention, but it kind of comes across like you are saying American citizens matter more than citizens of other countries. I am not taking into account whether or not they actually committed violent crimes, but just at face value you do kind of come across with a “Americans are superior” line of thinking, and that is, bluntly, a load of s&*t.

      • katie

        Not my intention at all to imply that Americans are superior. Just making the point that American citizens are protected under the Constitution because they are citizens. Foreign citizens, captured abroad, are not protected under the consitution. The constitution isn’t a worldwide thing.

      • Tim

        I Agree with katie. So many short sighted people who wouldn’t know the Constitution of the United States if it smacked them in the face, let alone the Bill of Rights.

    • Chris

      Jose Padilla is an American citizen. He was declared an enemy combatant and held for three years without trial. Now, I’m not saying I feel sorry for him, as he probably was a terrorist. But it scares me that the government has claimed the right to detain Ameican citizens without trial. I’m not worried about terrorists’ rights, I’m worried about my own rights.

      • katie

        Good point Chris – that is definitely an issue worth discussing. I think some liberals equate all foreign enemy combatants as protected by the Constitution, which is not true. But you’re right that Padilla, as an American citizen, is more of a parallel to Mary Surratt. KSM, Bin Laden’s driver, etc are not in the same boat.

      • Marty

        Illegals coming across the border are protected under the U.S. constitution. Gitmo is considered U.S. soil.

      • @katie

        The US has to define what exactly what the foreign enemy combatants are. Are they Prisoners of War and therefore under the rules of the Geneva Convention? Or are they under arrest for committing terrorist crimes against the US, and therefore are entitled to rights afforded by the Constitution to any criminal? When you are arrested for a crime against US law you are afforded rights under the Constitution no matter what your citizenship status.

      • rich

        i agree, but will go farther and say we already lost our important rights,that WAS! the purpose of the true 911. You are 5 years behind the truth-false flag movie shold and will be done

  • MissMel

    I still can’t bring myself to watch any movies that have 9/11 as a main plot point. I spent so many hours in the weeks following that day watching television footage and trying to make sense of it all that I think I had my fill for a lifetime. Maybe in 20 years I’ll be interested to see how history treats that time but for now I’ll pass.

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  • Brett

    movies mark the moment of popular culture in our society, at least a year or so after finishing the script and shooting the film…in the 80’s and early 90’s I’m sure critics felt the same about post-Vietnam movies: Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam, Forrest Gump, The Killing Fields, Born on the Fourth of July, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now…

    • Maggie

      But you just named a number movies that have come to be considered classics. I think Owen’s real point is that for the most part “post-9/11″ films have not been very good. Also, he’s not only talking about movies with 9/11 as the explicit subject but also those that try to speak to the post-9/11 sensibility which he argues tends to be oversimplified and preachy.

  • Angela

    I haven’t really seen many of the movies that have been put out about 9/11 or the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, not because I really have anything against the subject, but most of them just haven’t seemed good enough to warrant a viewing. United 93, however, was a fantastic film; like Owen said, I can’t imagine that any movie about this subject will be more powerful or cathartic or, simply, as well-made. I never had any interest in The Conspirator, not because of any politics but because it 1) looked rather dull and 2) seems like the only reason we’re supposed to care about Mary Surratt is because she’s a woman. Of course, I’m judging from the trailer, but reviews have only confirmed that.

    Sort of off-topic, but my favorite film from Redford is actually A River Runs Through It. Personally, I thought Ordinary People felt stilted and dated; it was, well, ordinary. And I liked the book a lot more.

    • D

      Just wanted to agree that A River Runs Through It is an excellent film (my favorite, in fact, not just of Redford movies but of movies in general). And Quiz Show is downright genius.

      • @D

        I actually prefer Quiz Show to A River Runes Through It. But, to each his own. Back on subject though, I feel the 9/11 aspect only cheapens most of these movies. It’s an easy way to be sentimental.

    • katie

      Yes – A River Runs Through It is amazing. Totally agree with you on this.

    • Penny

      Love A River Runs Through It! Redford narrating is beautiful. And Redford wasn’t being political which was nice.

  • Pittner

    I’m kind of with you on this Owen. Seems like a lot of these movies have shades of 9/11 to them just so the filmmakers can make their films seem even more important. Those movies you mentioned, Lions for Lambs was god-awful and United 93 was really one of the best movies of the past decade.

  • jm1656

    America hating movies will always fail.

    • LOL

      GOP hates America.

  • Tollin

    I agree with your praise of United 93! I would also add Spike Lee’s 25th Hour with United 93. Not exactly about 9/11 but there were definite undertones throughout the film.

    • Heather P

      I sat down to watch United 93 with a box of kleenex in hand. I never needed them. The theater was absolutely silent the whole movie and also when leaving. We were all just dumbfounded. We all remembered the feeling of disbelief at the time.

      The only other 9/11 film I’ve ever seen was World Trade Center. I agree with you. It sucked.

  • Jackson

    Okay. I haven’t seen The Conspirator, but World Trade Center was a really great movie.

    • Rusel

      1. Sweet texts2. Squishy3. Spaztastic kittehs4. New bras5. Spending time with my MOH6. Cold Stone7. Burying my head to hide the insnae gigglesnorts8. Cuddles9. Not a Reese toy! 10. Anticipating homecoming.

  • Kate

    Except that Mary Surratt was NOT, “in fact, innocent.” She absolutely aided and abetted the conspirators before, on the day of the assassination and afterwards. Was her role big enough to warrant execution? Probably not.

    And United 93 was an amazing movie. I think viewers stayed away because while the heroism was so real, the events were so terrifying and sad it was difficult to watch. Buying that movie ticket meant you knew you were going to watch those people die all over again. We watched thousands murdered on live TV that day…it’s hard to watch even an excellent movie re-create that horror and sadness.

    • Bonnie

      This! It is still too soon for me. Maybe it always will be too soon for me because the best movie made about 9/11 is the news coverage of that day, itself.

    • tori

      I agree Kate…too painful to watch again

    • katie

      You’re absolutely right, Kate. I really want to see United 93 (perhaps it will be on TV this year around 9/11).

    • Mad Max

      I agree with everything Kate said.

    • Hannah

      Thank you, Kate! It is really irritating for me, as a history major, to hear and see people refer to Mary Surratt as “innocent”. Was she deserving of death? Probably not. But she most certainly was involved in aiding the conspirators and that does not equal innocence. Sometimes when movies try too hard to make a point, the real story gets lost. The truth is way more interesting than these movies.

  • Thomas Knerr

    I have yet to see The Conspirators but I do intend to see it. I am somewhat of a Civil War buff and I can tell you right now that any accurate historical account of the events will find that Mary Surratt was guilty as charged. Should she have been hanged ? No, but she was not just caught up in the conspiracy of the others, she actively and willingly participated in all but the actual assassination. That of course was Booth while the other botched attempt on Seward was by Lewis Powell. All the others backed out of their assigned rolls, yet four were hanged. The only death was Lincoln’s and his was “avenged” by a soldiers rifle.
    I see this more as reference to Gitmo than 9-11. What jerks my chain about these Hollywood melodrama’s is why can’t they just make a good movie without having some political agenda entwined in the plot.

    • katie

      I agree. I have a keen interest in history, and was considering seeing The Conspirator….but I don’t want to support something that has an overt political agenda. I did watch a NatGeo documentary (which included some scenes from The Conspirator) that told Mary Surratt’s story…and honestly, that’s enough for me. I know more about Lincoln’s assassination and didn’t have to pay $10 for it.

    • Chris

      Hollywood makes movies about everything else, why not The Civil War?

      And from the reviews I read and heard about from The Conspirator I hope they make more just for history. People who I regarded as intelligent thought the movie was fiction and had no idea that the Lincoln Assassination was a conspiracy. What are our schools teaching us?

      Even the release date of the movie was the day Lincoln died.

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