Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

9/11: The TV Movie

While the news is dominated by the appearance of the Osama Bin Laden videotape that has emerged pre-election, my eyes (and imagination) have been captured by this announcement that ABC and NBC are developing TV versions of 9/11, based on the 9/11 Commission Report.

The creative force behind the NBC version is Graham Yost, a versatile figure who's been involved with series TV ("Boomtown"), film ("Speed"), and high quality minis ("From the Earth to the Moon," "Band of Brothers"). No news yet on who will take on the ABC project.

Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine.com sees horror:

"Please, no.

There are so many reasons not to:

It's too soon.

It's exploitive.

It's another effort to enshrine the 9/11 Commission report as gospel. It isn't.

There hasn't been a decent miniseries in decades and the thought of turning this national tragedy into network kitsch is unbearable."


I can't argue with Jarvis's fear of kitsch. He's making an assumption it will be done badly.

I share the fear but also hold out some respectful hope.

Basically, as an initial reaction, I think a high-quality telefilm based on the 9/11 Commission report would be a potentially compelling, dramatic piece. There's no reason, based on the small-screen medium itself or the immediacy of the historical moment, why it can't be an artistic high-point in television. My sense is the public (I include myself) still really doesn't understand the 9/11 plot, and I think this could be eye-opening.

It could potentially play against the arch simplicity of politics -- the portrayal of the hijackers as simply inhuman barbarians with no motivation in life other than to sow death and destruction -- by forcing us into the minds, and potentially, the deeper motivations of the hijackers.

That doesn't mean I sympathize with the hijackers or their cause, or want to; it means that I believe we haven't come to terms with the fact that they were human beings, who for some reason that we seem unwilling to contemplate, offered to sacrifice their lives for a cause they deemed larger than themselves. Sure, some of these causes were probably individual and psychological, but the movie would have to take on some under-explored geo-politics.

It is one of the great purposes of the dramatic arts to get inside the heads of people we can't otherwise understand and help us see another point of view. NOT necessarily to sympathize with or, or identify with it, but to understand it so we can fight against it. It's worth remembering the oldest surviving play in the western canon, Aeschylus's "The Persians," is told from the point of view not of Aeschylus's Greeks, but from their enemy's.

That said, I'd feel a lot better if HBO were doing this than the networks. I'm deeply concerned about the commercial (advertiser) issues and how the networks will want to water down certain elements. Even more importantly, though, I've been thinking about the artistic/structural considerations of this for network TV. (I worked in television development, with an emphasis on network TV movies, for 5 years in the late 90s, before writing TV and theatre reviews for Variety.)

First, network TV movies are based on a 7-act structure -- that means they're divided into 7 narrative chunks broken up by commercial breaks. Each "act" should end with a "button," or a climactic, hopefully suspenseful moment that will bring people back after the break. The biggest "button" should come at the end of the 3rd act, which would usually happen at the half-way point -- the hour break. For mini-series, of course, there needs to be a big "button" at the end of each 2-hour episode (the typical length).

Along with the commercial necessity of avoiding controversy (or, at least, avoiding the wrong type of controversy, a la CBS's "Reagan" movie which the network had to shelve), this formulaic 7-act structure is what could force the story into simplistic beats, and bring Jarvis's fears of kitsch to fruition. I can imagine rather easily that the buttons will be based on moments that present a possible alternative reality -- in other words, moments that could have meant 9/11 never happened. If the potential political controversy of this makes it too hot to handle, then the writers will have to opt for more blatantly emotional "buttons," with the following of innocents going to work at the towers, saying goodbye to relatives they'll never see again, etc.

One of the main reasons HBO films are superior to network ones is because they don't have to be broken up into such frequent mini-climaxes. (I don't mean to diss Showtime, but they produce so many more original films than HBO, and typically spend so much less on creating them, that while some are good the quality of their product is generally inferior.) They can focus more on historical sweep, narratives that build more slowly, greater character development, etc. Certainly, there's the subscription audience issue, too, but the issues of craft are significant.

I'm sure that one of the conversations being had behind closed network doors is the portrayal of the Arabs in the film. They won't want the hijackers or Al Qaeda figures to be the only ones there -- they'll want a counter-balance to the depictions of Arabs and Muslims as killers. The question is whether this will come off as a token figure.

The first thing I'd like to hear from the networks is that they'll be having at least some of the picture happen in foreign languages, including Arabic, with subtitles. While this presents all sorts of issues in and of itself, at least it would signal that the networks are putting considerations of both craft and reality above purely commercial ones.

I'm also waiting to hear what the networks say the films will be "about." The thematic drive behind the films will be essential. For example, a movie about 9/11 that's "about" how it didn't have to happen and could have been prevented is one kind of movie. That story is certainly there, and would be fairly predictable. Or it could be "about" why some people hate America so much and how they've been deceived into doing so -- it could be "about" brainwashing and its causes and consequences. It could be "about" what Americans value and how that may have changed permanently during the events of 9/11. There are many more possible "abouts," and one of the first things the networks will need to do is determine which story they really want to tell.