On a day when Israel lay poised to unleash its broadest ground operation yet, and Britain uncovered a plot that was days away from replicating the carnage of 9/11, I went to the movies.
Not just any movie. I went to see "World Trade Center." I’m glad I did.
I know there are many reasons people will give not to see this film, and most of them are valid. Some say it’s too early to make a film about this immense tragedy. Others feel that such a movie can’t help being exploitative and invades the sacred spaces of those who lost loved ones. Still others object to the showbiz dramatization of an ineffable experience and point to patented theatrical devices, such as slow motion-sequences, that can convert the holy into the Hollywood. Finally there are those who have not forgiven director Oliver Stone for his treatment of the assassination of President Kennedy in "JFK." Perhaps the most convincing argument not to see "World Trade Center" is that it still hurts too much. I respect these views, and wouldn’t presume to tell someone else whether or not to go. I can only share my personal reactions.
In the theater, emotions ran high. Although it was a late-night showing and the room was mostly empty, there was a policeman who shushed someone loudly, saying, "Those were my friends who died out there — show some respect." Some people left their seats early on, and did not come back, apparently unable to deal with their feelings.
I expected to feel the same way I do each year, when I force myself to relive horrors on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. This turned out to be true, but at first I was surprised to find myself crying not during the disaster scenes, but during the interspersed family vignettes, which connected to the inner lives of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, the two trapped Port Authority Police officers around whom the story revolves. The fleshing out of the officers’ relationships with their loved ones, made poignantly possible by their sudden, perhaps permanent absence, is what provides emotional depth. On second thought, isn’t this exactly how the Bible highlights loss? The sale of Joseph becomes real when we see his aged father Jacob rending his garments, and the death of the Canaanite general Sisera is given finality through the image of his mother watching for him at the window.
There are many movies that explore relationships better, and plenty with better special effects. But this movie consciously chose to take one small square of the jagged mosaic — a square that deals with heroism, and risking one’s life to do the right thing — and make it the center. Looming behind the two men who are rescued are the ‘,749 who were not, but art makes choices in how to preserve both triumph and tragedy. Art is an essential way through which a society decides how to fit the most indigestible nuggets into its ongoing narrative — how and what to remember.
As Jews, we did the same thing just two weeks ago on Tisha B’Av, when we expressed our powerlessness through some of the most powerful poetry known to mankind — from biblical verses to prophetic exhortations to medieval laments, or kinot. When adrift on a sea of chaos, we sought out the order and beauty of poetry. In the same way, America has commemorated its war dead in the sleek lines and etched words of the Vietnam Memorial. Why do we respond to catastrophe with art?
One answer is that by preserving disaster as art, we take back control over it. The horrors will live on, but in the frame we set around them. And since art is produced by human beings, the evil will be reduced to human proportions, almost able to be encompassed by human minds and expressed by human means. The kinot are two-edged tools — speaking of randomness, while testifying to order, lamenting helplessness, while hinting at control.
"World Trade Center" takes a defining American moment that evokes fear and impotence and chooses to frame it in terms of courage and self-sacrifice. When Theodor Adorno wrote in 1949 that "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," perhaps he meant that the Holocaust was so huge that the standard devices for making tragedy digestible simply don’t apply.
The concluding voiceover, in which the rescued men say that their experiences taught them the good of which man is capable, reminded me of others who chose to extract meaning from life’s tragedies. I thought of the parents in Israel who set up charitable foundations to memorialize their children who fall victim to terror, and physicians who immigrated to Israel to fill some of the void left when Dr. David Applebaum was murdered. There is a part of the soul that propels us to wrest meaning from apparent randomness, and to intuit the presence of God when He is so far away. Deep down we believe that a good God implanted this power of soul within us, and that the order we make is real, not contrived.
Sitting in the darkened theater did not feel like a distraction from affairs in the Middle East, nor unrelated to the revelations coming from England. Five years ago the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans sounded the alarm that Islamic terror was on the march. An unpopular war in Iraq has muffled that clarion call. France and Russia are even now ready to restrain Israel from confronting the evil that spawned 9/11. We have been given three reminders that the danger is as strong as ever — war in the Middle East, the foiling of a new terrorist plot, and the debut of a movie. Pray to God that we need no further hints.
Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg is director of Public Affairs for the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox rabbinic organization.