FullÂ disclosure: As a New Yorker born and bred, I may be slightlyÂ biased. But, while it may have been the nation as a whole that was targeted byÂ terrorists five years ago, the people of the cityÂ of New York bore the brunt of the attacks of 9/11. The psychic scars left upon the city have barely begun to be recognized, and it will be years moreÂ before they even begin to heal. Half a decade on, the inner turmoil of New Yorkers is beginning to show up on film.
The need to skirt around the city’s gaping emotional wound is achingly apparent in TheÂ Great New Wonderful, a loosely interconnected series of sketches about ordinary New Yorkers'from a couple strugglingÂ with their marriage and their unruly son, to a maker of absurdly fancyÂ cakes for Manhattan debutantes'on the one-year anniversary ofÂ 9/11. The word “terrorism” isn’t mentioned once in the film; there’s barely a direct acknowledgement of the day at all. But directorÂ Danny Leiner and his wonderful cast'including Olympia Dukakis, Tony Shalhoub, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Edie Falco'create an atmosphere of perpetual unease,Â a sense that the dominantÂ state of mind from now on would be one of anxiety. No film that I’ve yet seen better captures the dismal mood that gripped the city in theÂ wake of the attacks, or the urge that many New Yorkers felt toÂ make a big life change: start a relationship or end one, move orÂ quit a job, as if the problem were within ourselves and realigningÂ the direction of our lives would fix it.
Brian Sloan’s WTC View, based on his own stage play, takes the metaphor of one of those life changes and uses it to explore theÂ desperate fragility of New Yorkers in the days immediately after 9/11. A young man (Michael Urie) places an ad on Sept. 10 for a new roommateÂ to share his downtown apartment and is besieged by applicants onÂ 9/12 and in the weeks after. But all the prospective roomies heÂ interviews are in as big a state of psychological flux as he is, hereÂ in the backyard of the Trade Center devastation. The one-on-oneÂ discussions'as he shows the apartment, and totalÂ strangers find themselves brought together by the city’s sharedÂ tragedy'are so powerfully and realistically depicted that theyÂ slammed this New Yorker back into that terrifying time like it was yesterday.
In Sorry, Haters, filmmaker Jeff Stanzler takes a slightly moreÂ surreal approach with his story of a screwed-up TV executive (Robin Wright Penn) who aggressively takes up the cause of a Syrian immigrant cab driver (Abdel Kechiche) whoseÂ family has been victimized by post-9/11 hysteria and paranoia. Stanzler pushes to extremes the impulse many New Yorkers'and many Americans'felt and continue to feel to do something constructiveÂ in response to 9/11, and turns it into a cautionary tale about not letting ourselves be consumed by grief or feelingsÂ of inadequacy. This is anÂ uncomfortable, even shocking, film about what constitutes terrorism,Â who perpetrates it and why.
And so is Joseph Castelo’s The War Within. It also looks at the aftermath of 9/11 from an immigrant’s perspective'that of an innocent Pakistani man (Ayad Akhtar, who wrote the film with Castelo) whoÂ plans his revenge on America for his years-long imprisonment andÂ torture by becoming what he was accused of being. This is a film to rattle any New Yorker (as it wanders city landmarks,Â like Grand Central Terminal, with destruction in mind) and anyÂ American (with its calm, thoughtful depiction of the howling, potentially destructive injustices wrought in our name).
It can hardly come as a surprise that there is no satisfying closureÂ to be drawn from these movies, no sense that the grieving is over.Â They are, to a one, devastating howls of inarticulate rage andÂ anguish. But they might serve as a punctuation mark on a city’s'and a nation’s'mourning, an expression of a collective unconscious acknowledging the need to begin to truly deal with the unthinkableÂ turned real.