Film | Government

April 29, 2006

Scratching a Wound

What a 1946 flick about WWII veterans tells us about 'United 93' and how we should respond to it.

Jody Shenn

There's a lot of things to say about this weekend’s premiere of that 9/11 movie. But, for an opinion about the film's release to be worth much, it should incorporate some historical perspective.

movie poster
Universal Pictures
The Wall Street Journal's film columnist, Joe Morgenstern, obviously has seen a lot of movies, and that's always a good thing for a reviewer. However, this week, offering real perspective based on all those years of movie-watching apparently isn't his thing. His review starts, "Never has an audience brought to a motion picture what we bring to 'United 93'—a sense of dread caused by an open national wound."

Only, I'm sure we have before.

OK, maybe Apocalypse Now doesn't quite qualify. Maybe not that many people had "a sense of dread" about the US getting involved in another disastrous and bloody war after Vietnam. Maybe by 1979 the "national wound" was long closed, even if the war was not officially so much farther behind us then, than September 11, 2001, is now. Or maybe what I've heard about Vietnam has greatly exaggerated its impact on our society. And maybe some of the other examples I'm thinking of right now also really don't undercut Mr. Morgenstern's "never has" statement much, either: A truly "national" painful event in this country's history is indeed hard to find, at least since 1900.

Nevertheless, this much I know: In 1946, right after World War II a little movie called The Best Years of Our Lives came out, with a national wound still fresh. Remember: That war didn't happen here, but lots and lots of our soldiers did get killed in it. In fact, it hurt many more families directly than did 9/11. And the general psyche of the entire nation was more than a little bit off then, too.

For instance, fears were running high, at least in some quarters, that propaganda-filled diatribes by Hermann Goering, Albert Speer, and other top Nazi leaders during the Nuremberg trials might spark a resurgence of Nazism in Germany. And after WWII, it was no doubt easy to fear a WWIII. No one called the second World War the "War to End All Wars."

Superficially, life was good for many GIs in 1946, with combat finished and the plush federal assistance for housing, education, and more. But for many GIs, life really wasn't good, as The Best Years of Our Lives—which won seven Oscars including for Best Picture—reminded America in fictional form at the time.

In a nugget after his main review, Mr. Morgenstern says United 93 "bears little outward resemblance to the fervently patriotic dramas that Hollywood made during World War II, films like 'Guadalcanal Diary' or 'Bataan' that, necessarily, stressed heroism over suffering and slaughter."

And that may be mostly true. But as an review explains, The Best Years of Our Lives (a true classic which undercuts the notion that black-and-white movies from the '40s weren't any good) was not that kind of movie: "The story focuses on three war veterans ... and their rocky readjustment to civilian life in their Midwestern town of Boone City ... capturing the contradictory moods of America in the mid-to-late 1940s." As Amazon notes, those moods included a "deep-rooted ambivalence and reassessment of personal priorities."

Like the film's most memorable character, Homer Parrish (played by real-life vet and amputee, Harold Russell), there were real former soldiers walking around back then with deep physical and psychological wounds after combat was done—wounds as gaping, in their way, as the wounds scratched today by re-enactments of the events of Sept. 11. Their fellow citizens were proud of them, while not being sure exactly what the soldiers' return stateside would mean.

As is usually true with "never before" or "the first time ever" statements, Mr. Morgenstern is obscuring the truth: We don't have to make judgments blindly about whether United 93 is a good thing, bad idea, or coming too soon. There's a lot of precedent to help us. For instance: The many Holocaust movies over the years. Is it crass, or is it crucial, to mix popular art forms like movies with the human desire to make sure we "never forget," as is the mantra of some Jews about the Holocaust?

Here's my view: The importance of remembering—really remembering, and not just the facts, but why they matter—trumps all else.

Behind Enemy Lines with Owen Wilson? Yes, it was a big-budget action flick (and not a very good one), and yes, going into it I knew a lot about what had happened in the Balkans. But the images in it still resonate in my head. Images can do that.

In his column, Mr. Morgenstern acknowledges that if not for his job, he might have skipped United 93 because of the emotional punch the subject packs, like he did with the two drier recent attempts at telling the story on television. I'd like to have passed on 9/11 itself, and don't know if I'll be up to seeing the movie. But I'm pretty sure I'm glad that it's out there.

There's no doubt a lot going on in the world today that requires us to keep what happened fresh in our memory, as we continue to debate what to do about it. As with many of the things that have happened in our country—our long embrace of slavery, near-genocide against Native Americans, the Red Scare, the terrorism of U.S. anarchists, and the ugly consequences of anti-immigrant sentiments—willful or sloppy ignorance is easy, but important to avoid.

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Article by Jody Shenn

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