The Day That Changed… Very Little

6 minute read
James Poniewozik

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were an assault as much on America’s pop culture as on its people. Islamic radicals’ disgust for consumer America runs as deep as their hate of its policies. “We love death. The U.S. loves life,” Osama bin Laden famously said after 9/11, but an Afghan militant perhaps made the point better: “The Americans love Pepsi-Cola. We love death.” The sweet, decay-promoting fruits of the American pleasure machine are, to fundamentalists, a threat to their way of life as powerful as any aggressor’s army.

We should be proud, then, that while ground zero is still being rebuilt, pop culture emerged with barely a dent. In the fifth year after 9/11, it’s revisiting the attacks head-on. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (see review, next page) digs into the rubble of the Twin Towers, telling the story of two police officers who were among the last survivors to be pulled out. United 93 grossed about $43 million worldwide, a respectable sum for a $15 million movie about the passengers who brought down a plane before hijackers could crash it. In January the cable movie Flight 93 drew A&E’s highest ratings ever.

Still, saying that 9/11 has entered pop culture is not the same thing as saying that 9/11 has changed pop culture. The disaster movie, the docudrama, the inspirational war story–those are not exactly innovations. There were predictions just after the attacks that pop culture would become more patriotic or more nostalgic or more introspective. Instead, it has just become more of what it was before–violent, irreverent, licentious and so on. 24 is a great show, but you can trace its ice-blooded do-what-you-gotta-do-ism back to Dirty Harry, not Donald Rumsfeld. It’s hard to see how any post-9/11 movie has hit on the nobility, banality and absurdity of war in a way Saving Private Ryan didn’t. On Three Moons Over Milford, a new comedy-drama on ABC Family, ordinary people change their lives after the moon breaks into three pieces, threatening Earth. But it’s a series on a modestly rated cable channel. Five years after 9/11, rethinking your priorities in the face of mortality is now niche programming.

Why should pop culture change? Has your life changed? Unless you’re in a military family, probably not. The Administration’s message to citizens since the attacks has been, Believe that 9/11 changed everything when it comes to foreign and domestic policy and that 9/11 changed nothing when it comes to spending and living. (Knowing that each day may be your last may be good for your soul, but it’s probably not a recipe for high worker productivity.) And the ordinary stuff of people’s lives is what pop culture, America’s unconscious, is fashioned from.

So instead of stories that reflect how 9/11 changed us, we have stories that help us flatter ourselves into believing that it did. The Flight 93 movies and World Trade Center, not to take anything away from them, cherry-picked the few triumphant stories of 9/11. They let us see it as a day when Americans tapped their strength, transformed and sacrificed–whether you and I, munching our Raisinets in the audience, did or not.

One of this year’s most powerful 9/11 stories is, in fact, ultimately about how little has changed since that day. The Path to 9/11, airing Sept. 10 and 11 on ABC, dramatizes the report of the bipartisan 9/11 commission. (Court TV airs a documentary on the report, On Native Soil, Aug. 21.) Fast paced and shot with handheld cameras, Path plays like a somber, dysfunctional 24, with all the grit but little of the success. A few days before 9/11, CIA Director George Tenet (Dan Lauria) and CIA officer Kirk (Donnie Wahlberg) are in a conference room with bulletin boards groaning with intel notes–and have no way to make sense of it all. “Everything’s blinking red,” Tenet says. “We’re overloaded.” Frustrated, harried, weary, he seems less like a movie spymaster than like an overworked sanitation commissioner.

From the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to Sept. 11, 2001, Path follows characters like John O’Neill (Harvey Keitel), the FBI agent who pursued bin Laden for years and died in Tower 2, and Kirk, a composite of CIA officers whose warnings–to get bin Laden in the 1990s, to better support the Taliban’s enemies–went unheeded. (Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush appear only in news clips.) Over six hours, we see the signals missed, the officials obsessed with protocol and covering their backsides and the best intentions stymied by bureaucracy, fate and the complexity of the target. One of the few things that go right is the foiling of the millennium bombing plot in 1999, and that gets only a few minutes; the rebellion on Flight 93, maybe a minute.

Executive producer Marc Platt and writer Cyrus Nowrasteh say they wanted to match the just-the-facts tone of the report. (“The report didn’t use any adjectives” is a mantra both men repeat. It’s exaggerated but true to the commission’s spirit.) Platt hired director David L. Cunningham, a documentary veteran, to give the movie a vérité look, without emotional tricks like zooming in on fraught moments. That’s not to say all the actors are dispassionate. Lauria recalls his having volunteered at ground zero after 9/11: “You realize how good people are. A good leader would have mobilized that instead of ‘Let’s make sure my friends keep making money.'” But he adds that making the mini-series left him hawkish on giving government agents the tools to fight terrorism. “It’s inevitable that the show is going to be politicized,” Wahlberg says, “because everybody watching it is going to have a political take.”

Any political take, however, pales next to the chagrin of watching Path move inexorably toward its climax. The last few minutes–inside the planes, the towers and the conference rooms on 9/11–are tastefully handled, though no less chilling. But they’re beside the point. What matters is what happened before and what happened–and didn’t–afterward. An epilogue notes the commission’s report card, issued last December, which found that most of its recommendations–securing weapons of mass destruction, delegating antiterrorism funds by risk–have been carried out badly or not at all.

That endnote is the scariest thing in the mini-series. Maybe 9/11 improved the American spirit, maybe it didn’t–that’s an interesting parlor game. Most of us, I suspect, would prefer that it simply had improved the American defense against mass murder. Inspiration and uplift from 9/11 films are all well and good. But it will be no comfort, if we are hit again, to know that we have seen that movie before.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com