As I sat in a Toronto hotel room and watched those first images of 9/11 playing over and over again, there was an eerie mixture of fact and fiction. Television showed panic in the streets, as people ran screaming toward the cameras. Behind them, the unthinkable: the vast towers crumbling in fire and smoke, and clouds of debris filling the canyons of the streets.
How often have we seen such sights in fantasy? How many imagined disasters, natural and man-made, have destroyed the cities of the earth? How many science-fiction monsters have wreaked havoc? How many movie posters have shown just such faces in the foreground?
On 9/11/2001, time froze for a moment, and when it started again, it seemed to exist in terms of frightening possibilities. Confused reports came in involving other airplanes. Airports were shut down. Borders were sealed.
Certainly it seemed that no work of fiction could encompass the horror, just as no film has ever contained war, plague, genocide. Surely one of the purposes of fiction is to supply narratives that help distract us from the underlying uncertainty of life.
The twin towers were digitally erased from many films then in production. A few features were made, notably "World Trade Center" and "United 93." I didn't see "WTC"--I was sick--but "United 93" was a great film. Still it was inadequate compared to the enormity of the reality. By the time "Remember Me" came in March 2010, it used the tragedy only as the payoff to a coincidence: The story it told was about an estranged father and son, Robert Pattinson and Pierce Brosnan, and how their lives come to a cruel juncture with 9/11. "I cared about the characters," I wrote. "I felt for them. Liberate them from the plot's destiny, which is an anvil around their necks, and you might have something." The fall of the towers was too awful to be encompassed in a story.
Oddly, of the two best films inspired by 9/11, one took place entirely before the fateful day, and the other one closed its eyes to it. In "September 11" (2003), 11 world filmmakers were asked to contribute segments of 11 minutes each. Some of them are good, some mediocre, and one segment has greatness, because it fully respects the horror. That was the one by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu of Mexico, who kept his screen entirely black for most of the 11 minutes, occasionally interrupting it with split-second flashes of bodies falling from the burning World Trade Center. We realize after awhile that the muffled thuds on the soundtrack are the bodies landing.
The other great film was "Man on Wire" (2008), a docudrama about how in 1974 a French wire walker named Philippe Petit secretly smuggled his equipment into the towers, stretched his wire between them, and walked back and forth far up in the air.
It is a powerful film, made transcendent by the fate of the towers. Petit honors them. He defines their height and the distance separating them by risking his own life. "Man on Wire" is about the vanquishing of the towers by human bravery and joy, not by fanatic terrorism. When those of the future seek to see what we lost on 9/11/2001, I hope they will view "Man on Wire" and not a thriller. It took ever so much more courage and skill to walk between the towers than to use them as the occasion for cowardly mass murder.