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.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Dramatic Indigestion

Interesting article in the NY Times about the various efforts to create films about the events of 9/11. I'm not quite sure it gets to the heart of what we may or may not "be ready for."

For more on the TV mini-series in development and my thoughts about them, you can check out an old post of mine here, where I note that one of the primary purposes of drama is to take us into the minds of those with perspectives very different from our own.

I do find producer Brian Grazer's comments about the piece intriguing and promising, and potentially provocative.

"Brian Grazer, co-chairman of Imagine Television, which is producing the NBC mini-series - and which has hired The Times as a consultant - said he hoped it would do for Muslims what Wolfgang Petersen's film 'Das Boot' did for World War II-era Germans.

'Every approach prior to that was, the Germans were horrible,' he said. 'He humanized them, because they are human. That's what I'm hoping we do, that we don't demonize, that we humanize all the different sides, and so we see the seeds, and we get an understanding from each culture's point of view as to how they got to such a horrible place.'"

I don't think that any films that "indirectly" take on 9/11 will cause significant cultural ripples; those, for example, that deal with handling grief. And the feature films discussed in the article seem to be focused on acts of courage, an effort to find a typically Hollywood through-line, to focus on the uplifting in the horror. Predictable commercial formula, neither good nor bad in itself, but open to charges of exploitation nonetheless.

But if the NBC mini-series is really willing to take on the charge of drama and humanize the villainous, then they're onto something both dramatically challenging and politically explosive.

Unlike the author of the Times article, I don't think the issue is whether we're "ready" to see a filmic depiction of the planes crashing into the towers (although that decision is a key artistic choice). I think the real question is whether we're ready to see a terrorist -- not a generic "terrorist" but a depiction of one of the actual 9/11 participants -- who loves his family and who has reasons, no matter how distorted, for what he's doing.

If you're not interested in how drama digests our great national trauma, then you're not interested in drama.

By the way, if you haven't seen it, I highly, highly recommend the PBS documentary "Telling Nicholas," which followed a family forced to inform a boy of the death of his mother at the World Trade Center. It becomes about much more than that, though. Great film. You can read my "Variety" review of it at the film's website.