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Regarding the Pain of Others: Scenarios of Obligation in Post-9/11 US Cinema


This article examines how the experience of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks has prompted both a hardening of a narrow version of US national identity figured in prejudicial terms and, conversely, an increased willingness to explore difference as it occurs both within the US (i.e. in the relations between Americans) and abroad (i.e. in the relations between Americans and foreigners). Through close textual analysis of two feature films – 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002) and Rendition (Gavin Hood, 2007) – this article profiles this increased willingness to explore difference as it is indexed in both the form and content of the films under discussion.

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1 Dexter Filkins, The Forever War: Dispatches From the War on Terror (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 2008), 44–45.

2 Montgomery, See Martin, “The Discourse of War after 9/11,” Language and Literature, 14 (2005), 149–80; Douglas Kellner, Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush-Cheney Era (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); and Anker, Elisabeth, “Villains, Victims and Heroes: Melodrama, Media, and September 11,” Journal of Communication, 55 (2005), 2237.

3 Eisman, April, “The Media of Manipulation: Patriotism and Propaganda – Mainstream News in the United States in the Weeks Following September 11,” Critical Quarterly, 45 (2003), 5572.

4 Morrow quoted in ibid., 60.

5 Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

6 The controversy surrounding Sontag's article is discussed in Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream: What 9/11 Revealed about America (London: Atlantic Books, 2007), 28–30.

7 George W. Bush, Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, Washington, DC: 2001. See

8 See Douglas L. Howard, “‘You're Going to Tell Me Everything You Know’: Torture and Morality in Fox's 24,” in Steven Peacock, ed., Reading 24: TV against the Clock, (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 133–45; David Holloway, 9/11 and the War on Terror (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008); Kellner; Cynthia Weber, Imagining War: Morality, Politics and Film (London: Routledge, 2005); and Spigel, Lynn, “Entertainment Wars: Television Culture after 9/11,” American Quarterly, 56 (2004), 235–70.

9 Faludi.

10 Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, Why Do People Hate America? (Cambridge: Icon, 2002).

11 Ibid., 195–203.

12 Goulart and Joe, “Inverted Perspectives on Politics and Morality in Battlestar Galactica,” in Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox, eds., New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008), 179–97, 180.

13 Weber, 7.

14 Felperin, See Leslie, “Interview with Spike Lee,” Sight and Sound, 13 (2003), 15. The creative freedom to make these changes stemmed from a combination of Touchstone's hope that the film had the potential to win an Oscar and a supportive A-list star (Norton was paid $9 million for Red Dragon (2002) but agreed to work on 25th Hour for a nominal fee of $500,000). To my knowledge, the only other filmmaker adding references to 9/11 to a film in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was Martin Scorsese – another auteur director privileged with considerable creative license – who placed the Twin Towers in the closing montage sequence of Gangs of New York (2002).

15 The score also later deploys the specially written Bruce Springsteen track “The Fuse,” whose sense of foreboding and future ordeals recalls the seminal album The Rising, which similarly blended American folk traditions in an attempt to produce a suitably inclusive and critical response to the terrorist attacks.

16 The Guys was also made into a film that was given a limited released in December, 2002. Both stage-play and film tell the story of a middle-aged female photojournalist and writer who in an act of solidarity agrees to help a grieving fire chief compose eulogies for his men killed on 11 September.

17 “Monty's Wake: A Spiky American Poet Sings for His Country,” The Economist, 366 (2003), 79.

18 Gilbey, Ryan, “Review: 25th Hour,” Sight and Sound, 13 (2003), 58.

19 Stephen Holden, “New York, Post-9/11 and Pre-,” New York Times, 5 Jan. 2003.

20 Gilbey, 58.

21 Explicit references are made to 9/11 in this sequence through Monty's invective against Osama bin Laden. The sequence is also preceded by shots of photographs of eleven actual firefighters killed on 9/11.

22 Intriguingly, the monologue (which appears in amended form in the novel) was taken out of the script at the request of Touchstone (who felt it would make Monty unsympathetic), only to be reinstated at Lee's insistence. See Massood, Paula J., “Interview with Spike Lee and David Benioff,” Cineaste, 28 (2003), 410, 9.

23 By way of contrast, in the novel Monty knows from the outset that Kostya has sold him out.

24 O'Neill, Patricia, “Where Globalization and Localization Meet: Spike Lee's 25th Hour,” Cineaction!, 64 (2004), 27, 6.

25 Joel Meyerowitz, Aftermath (New York: Phaidon Press, 2006).

26 The following articles examine the way in which Ground Zero as symbol was used to bolster the move to war: Grant, A. J., “Groud Zero as Holy Ground and Prelude to Holy War,” Journal of American Culture, 28 (2005), 4961; Westwell, Guy, “One Image Begets Another: A Comparative Analysis of Flag-Raising on Iwo Jima and Ground Zero Spirit,” Journal of War and Culture Studies, 1 (2008), 325–40.

27 A similar kind of allegorical framing can be found in a large number of post-9/11 films, including The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), The Good German (2006), and There Will Be Blood (2007).

28 Holloway, 47.

29 Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel, eds., The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

30 Reflecting the increasing willingness in the latter part of the decade to explicitly articulate this kind of criticism, Lee would follow 25th Hour with two further films with post-9/11 themes: Inside Man (2006) and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006), the latter a scathing critique of the Bush government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

31 David Simpson, 9/11:The Culture of Commemoration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 11.

32 Ibid., 18.

33 In this respect, it is significant that the producers of Rendition, MID Foundation, were also responsible for Syriana (2005).

34 The film is based on the true story of Syrian-born Canadian engineer Maher Arar, who was taken to Syria and imprisoned and tortured for a year before being released without charge. In contrast to Hollywood's account, Arar was not released due to a conscience-stricken CIA operative, nor was his story widely reported in the press.

35 In a review in The Observer, 21 Oct. 2007, Philip French speculates that the producer of Rendition, Steve Golin – also responsible for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), 50 First Dates (2004) and Babel (2006), all films with narrative “twists” – may have had a hand in this.

36 Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009); Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2003).

37 Simpson, 110.

38 Ibid., 117.

39 I feel the following films also explore scenarios of obligation in ways synonymous with the two films discussed in this article, especially in relation to the ways in which their narratives attempt to triangulate between different perspectives: 11′09″01 – September 11 (2002), Control Room (2004), Syriana (2005), The Situation (2006), The Good German (2006), Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) and The Green Zone (2010).

40 Weber, Imagining War, 2.

41 Ibid., 2.

42 Ibid., 2.

43 Kellner, Cinema Wars, 12.

44 Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 (2004) is the only film that reached a mass audience but I would contend that it is not primarily interested in what I have been describing as “scenarios of obligation.”

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