Five Pieces of Pop Culture that Wrestled with 9/11

The third episode of Spike Lee’s “NYC Epicenters 9/11-> 2021½,” which covers the Sept. 11 attacks, begins not in the sober tones one might expect, but with the opening number of the 1949 musical “On The Town.” A very young Frank Sinatra joins Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin in singing and dancing their way across New York City, while Lee intercuts shots of present-day New York. The overall effect is something like a benediction upon the city, a reminder of the effervescence and unexpected innocence that lies at the heart of the idea of New York.

While Lee’s documentary will eventually turn to the actual events of Sept. 11 and the more traditional storytelling style one might expect, it is also filled with moments like that opening: stories and insights from various people—some of whom have no obvious connection to 9/11—that keep putting those horrible events into a broader context of life in New York City.

Many of the stories that came out of 9/11, tales of grief and rage, sin and freedom, seem relevant once again.

We hear the funny stories of the Black airline stewards from New York who referred to a flight crew that was entirely “black, brown and beige” as a “Soul Plane”; French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s efforts to sneak onto the construction crew of the Twin Towers to prepare for his Aug. 7, 1974 walk between them; the women who fought their way into employment with the New York City Fire Department. Lee gives special attention to women and people of color, which expands the film’s viewpoint beyond other narratives of New York or 9/11. What emerges is a jazzy mosaic of human life, a story not primarily about a tragedy, but about New Yorkers and New York.

“Epicenters” stands in a long line of films, television shows and other stories that have attempted to wrestle in one way or another with the significance of Sep. 11 and the events that followed. Some, like “The Looming Tower,” “The Hurt Locker” or “Flight 93,” specifically refer to the historical events. Others have been less direct—and, to my mind, often more revelatory.

Here are five stories that offered something specific and unique to the realities we faced after 9/11.

“The Lord of the Rings” and the struggle to endure horror

A modern fairy tale about wizards, small people who don’t wear shoes and their friends setting out to destroy a ring and a faceless enemy seemed pretty far afield from the world in which we found ourselves after Sept. 11. But the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy of films, which came out during the holidays of 2001, ’02 and ’03, captured the growing horror of the times, as our initial military response to the attacks spun out into a chaotic hurricane of ideology, corruption and violence from which there seemed no escape.

The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which came out during the holidays of 2001, ’02 and ’03, captured the growing horror of the times.

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered,” our trusty companion Sam notes in the trilogy’s second film, which had the unsettling title of “The Two Towers.” “Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?” I know no better summation of how it felt to watch our government pivot from targeting the Taliban to the invasion of Iraq and to war seemingly without restraint or end.

What follows in the film captured perfectly the hope-against-hope quality that sustained many of us. Sam continues: “In the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.”

“The Sopranos” and the American savage

HBO’s first mainstream hit had three seasons under its belt before Sept. 11. The fourth season began shortly after the first anniversary of the attacks, and was noted for the fact that it removed the shot of the Twin Towers from its opening credits.

Watching “Sopranos” was like staring into the anxious, ever-grasping male id of our country.

But with its casual racism and misogyny, its deconstruction of morality as simply window dressing and its emphasis on aggression as a law unto itself, the show seemed custom-made for post-9/11 America. Watching “Sopranos” in those years was like staring into the anxious, ever-grasping male id of our country. And while creator David Chase would insist the show functioned as a critique of America, more often than not it came off as a celebration of our very worst qualities.

“Battlestar Galactica” and the difference between them and us

After almost four years of government rhetoric and action that systematically demonized Muslims, long time “Star Trek” writer Ronald D. Moore turned a rather silly 1970s show into the most thoughtful and challenging post-9/11 series on television.

Ronald D. Moore turned a rather silly 1970s show into the most thoughtful and challenging post-9/11 series on television.

What made “Battlestar Galactica” groundbreaking was one small adjustment from the original series about genocidal robot Cylons pursuing what remained of the human race across the galaxy: Moore had the robots look and behave like human beings, complete with a society and faith of their own. (In fact the Cylons worshipped one god, while the humans worshipped a set, a clear Muslim-Christian parallel.) At first their physical similarity served as a further danger to the humans, a vulnerability they could not overcome. Anyone could be “a toaster.”

But as the series went on the undeniable similarity between the two groups—a similarity so profound that it was possible for members of each to have children together—began to undermine the humans’ way of thinking. Is torture or rape any less wrong if the victims are not “like us”? Is genocide? And who can say with certainty whose religion is more in touch with the divine?

“Lost” and the problem of heroism

“Lost” debuted the same year as “Battlestar” and grabbed the world’s attention with its oh-so-soapy mysteries about smoke monsters, French women and underground hatches. But where “Battlestar” focused on problematizing the largely amoral calculus of the Bush Administration, “Lost” concerned itself with the pop culture categories through which Americans tend to see themselves.

“Lost” was like a 12-step program for our country, presenting the endless cycle of fear and violence in which we found ourselves.

Most of the characters in the series represent some heroic type: the action hero and heroine; the rascal; the self-made man; the sweetheart; the thinker; the dad; the evil genius. At first, the plot twists of the show lie in the slow-burn revelation that each of these characters was far more flawed or damaged than he or she appeared. But over the course of its six seasons, the series turned on the pop-culture tropes themselves, showing how they delude the characters (and us) into a false sense of innocence and strength. Rather than providing a source of empowerment or purpose, imagining ourselves as, say, “Sheriff of the World” locks us into patterns of thought and behavior that are destructive to ourselves and others.

In the end, the series was like a 12-step program for our country, presenting the endless cycle of fear and violence in which we found ourselves—“the island” we felt we were trapped on—as ultimately self-created. No war won (or lost) would ever end it, no escape would ever be real until we abandoned the overly simplistic versions of heroism in which we costume ourselves. More often than not, that meant allowing others to step in and save us from ourselves. As the characters frequently said, “Live together, die alone.”

“The Leftovers,” The Goldfinch and the horror that endures

Four years after he finished “Lost,” series co-creator Damon Lindelof returned with “The Leftovers,” which follows community members of a small New York town three years after 2 percent of the global population has vanished without explanation. The year before, Donna Tartt released her Dickensian novel The Goldfinch, about the life of a 13-year-old boy after his mother is killed in a terrorist incident at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“The Leftovers” is a meditation on the hell of being a survivor, and the Dante-esque journey required to find a life beyond loss.

Debuting in the waning years of the Obama presidency, both stories are almost too late to be considered 9/11-related. The world seemed to have moved on. But each was about exactly the experience of trying to recover one’s balance after a crisis. How do you survive after everything goes back to “normal”? How do you deal with all the demons, trauma and scar tissue then?

In each case the answer was very clear: Not well, and not easily. “The Leftovers” in particular is a meditation on the hell of being a survivor, and the Dante-esque journey through grief and mania required to find a life beyond loss. And in The Goldfinch, Tartt’s self-destructive protagonist Theo Decker asks, “If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you?” Or “is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”

Each story ends on a hopeful note. And yet we seem to find ourselves still trapped in that time of madness, with many of us indeed throwing ourselves head first and laughing into a holy rage. Indeed, large groups of people refusing to wear masks or get vaccinated in the midst of a global pandemic feels ripped right from “The Leftovers.”

Is our current predicament in some distant way a result of what happened to us 20 years ago, or a consequence of what has come since? It’s hard to say. But many of the stories that came out of 9/11, tales of grief and rage, sin and freedom, seem relevant once again. Certainly we find ourselves hoping once again for a new day to come.