Friday Night Seitz

Remembering the cultural legacy of 9/11

Slide show: It wasn't the end of irony. But pop culture reflected the attacks in surprising and unforgettable ways

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    Summer 2001

    "Band of Brothers," "Pearl Harbor," "Is This It," "Sparklehorse"

    All’s quiet on the domestic front

    It’s strange how popular culture can seem to express an unconscious wish or fear, and even anticipate sudden reversals of fate. In the summer of 2001, a few months into President George W. Bush’s first term, the country seemed fat, happy and oblivious. Cable news was dominated by coverage of a slowing economy and the Chandra Levy scandal, and a rash of shark attacks (by “rash,” we mean a few) sparked media hysteria, with Time going so far as to dub the warm months of 2001 “The Summer of the Shark.” Sparklehorse’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (June) and the Strokes’ “Is This It” (July) offered smart sketches of modern friendship, love and alienation that felt like present-tense snapshots at the time, but came to feel like time capsules and veiled premonitions later. New York Times critic Jon Pareles would write in a year-end roundup, “[The Strokes] use the echoes to place the songs in a realm where after-hours hipness is small consolation for a broken heart.” There was plenty of that going around.

    Despite the media’s skipping-through-the-meadow cluelessness, there was something unsettling in the air that summer. In early 2001, the “Silence of the Lambs” sequel “Hannibal” contained a close-up of the FBI’s Web page of the world’s 10 Most Wanted criminals; it put the titular, fictional serial killer alongside al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. The climax of the pilot episode of the “X-Files” spinoff “The Lone Gunmen” revolved around the title characters trying to stop a remote-controlled jet airliner from crashing into the World Trade Center towers. The final act of Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” envisioned a flooded future Manhattan over which the still-intact twin towers loomed. Ghosts Are Sleeping,” a chilling song from Radiohead’s “Kid A” (June 2001), was told from the point of view of outnumbered defenders taunting a much larger force: “Holy Roman Empire/ Come on if you think/ Come on if you think/ You can take us all on.” In August 2001, the president got a national security briefing during his vacation in Crawford, Texas, that warned, “Bin Laden determined to strike in US.” The briefing, which the administration brushed off at the time, would become the centerpiece of 2004 congressional hearings investigating failures in the nation’s security.

    Michael Bay’s film “Pearl Harbor” (May 25, 2001) turned the worst prior attack on the U.S. into a three-hour Coke commercial while expressing a weirdly robotic nostalgia for a time of clean-cut romances and clear-cut struggles between good and evil; there was even a scene where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Jon Voight), warned by a general that a swift, ambitious counterattack against the Japanese was impossible, hauled himself up out of his wheelchair and barked, “Do not tell me it can’t be done!” Spielberg, who became the Ken Burns of historical dramas with 1997′s “Amistad” and 1998′s “Saving Private Ryan,” teamed up with Tom Hanks to oversee the HBO miniseries of “Band of Brothers,” historian Stephen Ambrose’s book about the Allied war against the Germans in Europe. The miniseries premiered Sept. 9, 2001. At the Television Critics Association press tour earlier that summer, the “Band of Brothers” press conference was dominated by questions about whether the filmmakers ever thought there could be another world war, and if so, whether the current generation of young Americans could meet the challenge as their great-grandparents had.

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    Sept. 11, 2001

    New York City and Washington, D.C., hit with hijacked jets; 2,996 Americans killed

    “The number of casualties will be more than most of us can bear.” — New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani

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    Sept. 11, 2001

    "The Corrections," by Jonathan Franzen

    “… describing moments and places in which nothing is happening”

    Jonathan Franzen’s novel “The Corrections,” about a middle-class family’s spiritual malaise in the new century, was officially published on Sept. 11, 2001. Its description of a particular time in American history that was instantly obliterated by the attacks made it beloved as well as respected; it now reads, quite unintentionally, like the modern version of a story set in the summer of 1963, about characters who had no clue what history had in store for them.

    Reviewing the novel for Salon on Sept. 7, 2001, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wrote, “There are several other minor skeins of coincidence, but running under the book like a muttering river is an obsession with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, surfacing most notably in the euphoria-inducing, libido-enhancing drug called Aslan, with which both Chip and Enid unwittingly experiment. Whatever he means by this, Franzen is not Lewis, and his version of America, although fantastical in some respects, is a long way from Narnia. From Alfred inspecting railroad bridges in rural Ohio to the interior life of Gary and Caroline’s tormented marriage as it descends from cruelty into open warfare to Chip’s orgiastic romps with a disturbingly well-adjusted freshman in a defranchised Comfort Inn, Franzen is a connoisseur of reality in its infinite shadings. Throughout this book, some of his best prose comes when he’s describing moments and places in which nothing is happening.”

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    Sept. 14, 2001

    The New York Times begins "Portraits of Grief"

    “The portraits were never meant to be obituaries in any traditional sense.”

    One of the many unusual aspects of America’s reaction to 9/11 was the media and government fascination with naming — and however possible, knowing — every individual who had been positively identified as a victim of the attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa. The New York Times went several extra miles with its epic special project “Portraits of Grief,” a series of short, often lyrical tributes to victims. From the complete archive on the paper’s website: “Three days after the September 11 attacks, reporters at The New York Times, armed with stacks of the homemade missing-persons fliers that were papering the city, began dialing the numbers on the fliers, interviewing friends and relatives of the missing and writing brief portraits, or sketches, of their lives. The portraits were never meant to be obituaries in any traditional sense. They were brief, informal and impressionistic, often centered on a single story or idiosyncratic detail. They were not intended to recount a person’s r

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    Sept. 17, 2001

    Bill Maher's "cowards" remark on "Politically Incorrect"

    “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away.”

    For years, Bill Maher’s inflammatory talk show “Politically Incorrect” had been comfortably ensconced on ABC every weeknight after “Nightline.” The network specifically hired him to stir up viewer passions, but they got more than they bargained for on the Sept. 17, 2001, broadcast, when Maher took issue with those who characterized the 9/11 hijackers as “cowardly.” “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” he said. “That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane until it hits the building, say what you want about it — not cowardly.”

    Maher’s comments sparked a firestorm of protest. The comedian later jokingly referred to the incident as “the events of 9/17″ and said it resulted in the show’s cancellation. That’s not entirely accurate; the program’s ratings and critical esteem had been in decline for a while, and the show wasn’t actually canceled until July 5, 2002. But Maher’s widespread unpopularity during the post-9/11 period surely gave the network another reason to cut him loose. One aspect of the broadcast that often gets forgotten: Maher was expressing solidarity with one of his guests, Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria, who had made basically the same point.

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    Sept. 17-21, 2001

    David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Rosie O'Donnell and other comedians get serious

    “It’s terribly sad. Terribly, terribly sad.”

    In the weeks following 9/11, America’s talk show hosts, comedians and clowns weren’t sure if it was appropriate to crack wise in the aftermath of the nation’s worst terrorist attack. They got over their worries soon enough, but during the first full programming week following the catastrophes, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Rosie O’Donnell and other hosts got serious, starting their Sept. 17 programs with heartfelt and sometimes tearful expressions of grief and solidarity. Letterman’s opening remarks were especially poignant, partly because we’d never before seen the wry, aloof Letterman so shaken. “It’s terribly sad,” he said, “Terribly, terribly sad.” He thanked New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for his leadership during the crisis, offered condolences to the survivors of slain police officers and firefighters, and expressed bewilderment that such bloodshed could come out of “zealots fueled by religious fervor, and if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any goddamn sense?”

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    Sept. 21, 2001

    "America: A Tribute to Heroes" airs on every network

    On Sept. 21, 2001, 35 cable channels and broadcast networks joined forces to broadcast “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” a music-driven telethon that eventually raised $150 million for the families of people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. The event was produced by MTV and broadcast from studios in New York and Los Angeles. It was on this broadcast that Paul McCartney debuted “Freedom,” a song he’d written one day after the attacks, when he was in New York City and still shaken.

    From Phil Gallo’s review in Variety: “Disturbing at times, uplifting in others, the parade of musicians hailed from rock, R&B and country, from elder statesmen such as Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Paul Simon to recent hitmakers such as Faith Hill, Enrique Iglesias and Alicia Keys. Collectively, however, they demonstrated that they are cut from the same cloth: Deep down, they believe music has a healing power like no other art form and hearing a special song in a time of need helps lift some of that weight off the heart. Readings and video clips personalized bravery, friendship, love and dedication; there were stories of how police officers, office workers and total strangers put a life or several in front of their own. The promise of the title was fulfilled, starting with Tom Hanks, always brilliant when it comes to being understated and powerfully direct, who introduced the participants as “merely artists and entertainers” who joined to “ensure that (victims’) families are supported.”

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    Sept. 24, 2001

    Jay-Z unveils "9/11 Freestyle"

    “I dropped the same day as the twin towers.”

    Rapper Jay-Z’s sixth studio album, “The Blueprint,” was released a week earlier than scheduled, to fight bootleggers; it officially went on sale Sept. 11, 2001. Although it was overshadowed, along with almost everything else, by the attacks, it went on to sell almost half a million copies. That fall, Jay-Z began performing a new song on tour to support the album, “9/11 Freestyle.” This New York Times story dates it to the Sept. 24 Hammerstein Ballroom performance. The song’s lyrics captured the conflicted impulses that many hip-hop fans — especially minorities — struggled with in the fall of 2001: the urge to support the U.S. during wartime, and equally ingrained sympathy with third-world citizens and distrust of America’s police and military.

    Bootleggers, bombers, Bin Laden
    I’m still crackin’
    I will not lose
    I simply refuse
    I dropped the same day as the Twin Towers
    I show power
    Still, I show compassion for others
    Send money and flowers
    Devote hours

    Still I struggle
    I’m addicted to the hustle
    I’m conflicted because, dude,
    America, this land of mine
    Is filled with prisoners with the same plans as mine
    So I’m a walking contradiction
    On one hand, I know my position
    But easily I could have been in that prison.

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    Sept. 26, 2001

    The Onion publishes first post-9/11 issue, "Holy Fucking Shit: Attack on America"

    “News flash: ‘God’s will’ equals ‘Don’t murder people.’”

    To those who wondered, “Will America ever laugh again?” the Onion replied, “Hell yes — how about right now?” The Onion’s first post-9/11 issue offered a mix of stories that were indeed funny, not to mention horrified, bewildered, furious and sorrowful — everything you want from cathartic humor. Contents included “U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever We’re at War With,” “Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” and the issue’s masterpiece, “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule,” which ended as follows: “‘I’m talking to all of you, here!’ continued God, His voice rising to a shout. ‘Do you hear Me? I don’t want you to kill anybody. I’m against it, across the board. How many times do I have to say it? Don’t kill each other anymore — ever! I’m fucking serious!’ Upon completing His outburst, God fell silent, standing quietly at the podium for several moments. Then, witnesses reported, God’s shoulders began to shake, and He wept.”

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    Oct. 30, 2001

    President George W. Bush throws out first pitch at World Series

    “He threw a strike, too. He has a good arm.”

    Although this slide show is about art and entertainment, not sports, President George W. Bush’s first pitch at the start of the 2001 World Series was such a huge moment that it demands an entry. From an Associated Press story about the moment: “President Bush threw out the ceremonial opening pitch of World Series Game 3 at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night, aiming to project an air of normalcy even after the government warned of possible new terror attacks. Bush received a thunderous cheer as he strode to the mound from the Yankees’ dugout, wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with ‘FDNY,’ a tribute to the New York City Fire Department. He stood on the pitcher’s mound and scanned the upper reaches of a sellout crowd of more than 57,000, then gave a thumbs-up sign. With flashbulbs popping and dozens of flags waving, Bush lingered on the mound for a moment, seeming to relish the moment. Then, with a quick windup, he threw the ball just off the center of the plate — a strike — to Yankees backup catcher Todd Greene, and walked off the mound to chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A.” “He threw a strike, too,” Yankees third baseman Scott Brosius said. “He had a good arm.”

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    Oct. 1, 2001

    "In Their Own Words," documentary episode of NBC's "Third Watch"

    <p“When they find the guys, I want to help to carry them out.”

    The producers of NBC’s drama “Third Watch,” about firefighters, cops and emergency medical technicians in New York City, had a long-standing, tight relationship with the people they told stories about, and often employed them as technical advisors and bit players. On Oct. 1, 2001, the show produced “In Their Own Words,” a documentary episode that put the fictional stories on hold and interviewed real-life heroes. The program was restrained and powerful. There was no music. The subjects sat in front of plain black scrims, recounting the day’s events in plain sentences and occasionally breaking down on camera.

    “I’d been working for about 20 hours,” an EMT said, “and I looked down at my foot, and I saw this half-severed hand of a woman with a wedding ring on. And that’s all there was. But you know, I didn’t know her, but I knew something about her at that point — I knew she loved somebody, and somebody loved her. And that’s when I thought, you know: This is not a dream. This is real.”

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    Oct. 3, 2001

    NBC's "The West Wing" airs "Isaac and Ishmael"

    “Why is everybody trying to kill us?”

    NBC’s White House drama “The West Wing” prided itself on not being afraid to address contemporary politics in a straightforward, earnestly liberal way. After 9/11, series creator Aaron Sorkin and his co-executive producer, John Wells, were frustrated that the logistical realities of TV production made it hard to work the attacks into the ongoing story line of the new season, which had been in production for months.

    But they felt the need to respond anyway, so Sorkin quickly wrote a stand-alone episode, “Isaac and Ishmael,” in which the White House went into lockdown mode after an apparent terrorist incident. Unfortunately, the setup — which found the major characters lecturing a group of visiting high school students about terrorism, Islam and the tension between freedom and security — recalled not “The West Wing,” but a condescending and tedious educational film. Answering a student’s question “Why is everybody trying to kill us?” — “us” meaning Americans — White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) actually walked over to a dry erase board and posed an SAT-style question, “Islamic extremist is to Islamic as blank is to Christianity?” The “right” answer, according to Lyman, was the Ku Klux Klan, which doesn’t even make sense.

    In retrospect, the episode feels like the beginning of the end for “The West Wing,” a lingering pop culture echo of the Clinton years that was about to get drowned out by the military-industrial spectacle and black-ops gruesomeness of Fox’s “24″ (see next slide).

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    Nov. 6, 2001

    "24" premieres on Fox

    In the summer of 2001, “24″ was the most buzzed-about new series of the fall — a real-time action thriller about a counterterrorist agent named Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) trying to save Los Angeles from being destroyed. The series’ premiere was delayed because the network feared the subject matter was too inflammatory, and because the pilot climaxed with a jet airliner being detonated in midair by a terrorist bomb. The producers eventually cut the shot of the plane exploding, and the series debuted Nov. 6, 2001. Its high-tech action, military machismo and enthusiastic defense of torture as an interrogation tool made it an instant hit, and arguably the defining network drama of the Bush years. (For a video essay series about “24,” click here.)

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    November 2001

    "Let's Roll," by Neil Young, and "Freedom," by Paul McCartney

    “You’ve gotta turn on evil/ When it’s coming after you.”

    Prior to 2001, rocker Neil Young had been known for counterculture sentiments, including a hatred of war and a distrust of propaganda and authoritarian government policies. But his single “Let’s Roll” — released in November 2001 — was much more in tune with the prevailing sentiment of outrage and payback. It was inspired by the battle cry of Todd Beamer, the passenger who helped lead a revolt against the hijackers of United Flight 93, the plane that was headed for Washington but crashed in Shanksville, Pa. Young sang:

    “No one has the answer
    But one thing is true
    You’ve gotta turn on evil
    When it’ s coming after you
    You gotta face it down
    And when it tries to hide
    You gotta go in after it
    And never be denied.”

    Although the song sparked much discussion, it never caught fire and became an anthem. Young later included it on his April 9, 2002, album “Are You Passionate?” In February 2002, Beamer’s family and the nonprofit Todd M. Beamer Foundation tried to copyright the phrase. A news story in London’s Telegraph noted, “There are at least a dozen other applications to trademark the phrase or variations of it, such as ‘America, let’s roll’.”

    Paul McCartney, who had likewise been associated with antiwar sentiments throughout most of his career, recorded his own anthem, “Freedom,” and performed it on the Sept. 21, 2001, “A Tribute to Heroes” telethon. He said it was his “We Shall Overcome” (see earlier slide). The song appeared on his Nov. 13, 2001, “Driving Rain” album, and was included on the tour. But McCartney quit performing the song live in 2005 because “immediately post-9/11, I thought it was the right sentiment. But it got hijacked. And it got a bit of a militaristic meaning attached itself to it, and you found Mr. Bush using that kind of idea rather a lot in [a way] I felt altered the meaning of the song.”

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    Fall and winter, 2001

    "Zoolander," "A Perfect Murder," "Glitter," "Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV"

    Films made before the 9/11 attacks struggle with whether to erase the World Trade Center

    The makers of New York-based films that were shot before 9/11 but planned for release in fall or winter of 2001 grappled with a quandary: to leave shots of the towers intact and risk taking viewers out of the moment, or leave them in as a gesture of respect for history. Some films — notably the Ben Stiller comedy “Zoolander” — chose to erase the buildings digitally. Others — including “A Perfect Murder,” “Glitter” and “Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV” — left them alone, and their makers were delighted to read news reports that audiences cheered at the sight of them. The makers of the first “Spider-Man” film, however, immediately pulled a teaser trailer that had run in the summer of 2001 — an extended bank robbery sequence that ended with the robbers’ helicopter getting tangled in a web that Spidey had woven between the towers. The teaser was later featured in DVD supplements and is available online.

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    Fall and winter, 2001

    "The Fellowship of the Ring," "Black Hawk Down" and other films mirror the public's mood

    “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”

    The major films released in the fall and winter of 2001 had been in the works for a year or two, so they obviously weren’t intended as responses to, or refections of, 9/11. But some of them still played that way.

    Tony Scott’s espionage thriller “Spy Games” spent its first three-quarters painting an unusually cold brutish portrait of counterterrorism and espionage business, only to collapse into sentimental hogwash by the end. Ridley Scott’s film of the nonfiction bestseller “Black Hawk Down” was a frenetic combat picture about a small band of Army Rangers besieged by Somali forces in Mogadishu; the film’s “Zulu”-style shots of waves of faceless, dark-skinned guerrilla fighters barreling after terrified, mostly white soldiers prompted charges of racism and jingoism. Antoine Fuqua’s cop corruption thriller “Training Day” ended with the main character, a corrupt cop, being disowned by housing project inhabitants he had once exploited, an end that many people hoped would befall Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

    Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom” showed an ordinary doctor (Tom Wilkinson) sloughing off his soft-bellied, middle-class life to avenge his son’s murder. David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” and Richard Kelly’s “Donnie Darko” were dark fantasies that were more about the inner workings of disordered minds than real-world turmoil, but their surreal images and moments of aching tenderness and despair struck a chord with many viewers who were coping with paranoia and depression after the attacks.

    “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first installment in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, resonated with its images of a hardy band of heroes going off to do battle against a creeping menace that threatened to take over the world. “Many that live deserve death,” the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) tells the hobbit hero, Frodo (Elijah Wood), who is entrusted with delivering the dreaded ring to the fires of Mt. Doom. “Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

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    Dec. 31, 2001

    Time magazine names New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani "Person of the Year"

    “Every time he spoke, millions of people felt a little better.”

    In the run-up to Time magazine’s yearly designation of a Person of the Year (formerly Man of the Year), the chattering classes began their annual debate about who should claim the title. In the old, pre-political correctness days, the title was bestowed upon whoever had the most impact on the world, regardless of whether they were inspirational or sympathetic. Under those rules, al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden would have been a shoo-in; after all, Adolph Hitler was Man of the Year in 1938. But Americans had become softer by 2001, so that scenario was unthinkable. President George W. Bush was also problematic, because although he had rallied and shown resolve in the fall and winter of 2001, on the day of the disaster he was himself a disaster — frozen in a classroom that morning like a frightened boy, then AWOL from public view until the evening.

    New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took the title because at that point in his career, pretty much everyone liked him — everyone, that is, who didn’t live in New York City, where his smug persona and authoritarian posturing sometimes rankled. On the day of the attacks, when the president was invisible and waves of contradictory data were glomming up the airwaves, Giuliani refashioned himself as a laid-back authority figure and master communicator. He told the press and the public everything he could find out, and did his best not to raise false hopes or endorse information that wasn’t verified yet. He remained humble, confident and likable for several weeks afterward, and became a national celebrity, the sort of man people looked to for cues on how to be a good leader. If you were an alien visiting from another galaxy that day, and you happened to glance at a TV set, you might think he was the president.

    From the Time cover story: “From midmorning on Sept. 11, when Giuliani and fellow New Yorkers were fleeing for their lives, the mayor had been thinking of Churchill. ‘I was so proud of the people I saw on the street,’ he says now. ‘No chaos, but they were frightened and confused, and it seemed to me that they needed to hear from my heart where I thought we were going.’”

    The glow had started to wear off before the Time cover even hit newsstands. Giuliani, whose term was up Dec. 31, used his post-9/11 aura to try to change city laws to run for a third term as mayor, or at least stick around for another three months. The next seven years birthed a string of best-selling books by the former mayor, plus a multimillion-dollar consulting business, an unofficial job as the president’s other press secretary, and a doomed 2008 presidential run. He was no longer the Mayor of America; he was a man who soiled his greatest moment by exploiting it.

    But for a few days, at least, he really was Person of the Year material. Or at the very least, Person of the Week.