While films about September 11 have courted controversy in various ways, none has been as outright disavowed and condemned as Martin Guigui’s 9/11, despite being based on a moderately critically play by Patrick Carson, entitled Elevator. Part of that must have be to do with the presence of Charlie Sheen, a supporter of the 9/11 Truth Movement, amongst the cast of actors, since this doesn’t seem to be all that different from the play in terms of the broad outline and ambit of its script – namely, a group of five people who find themselves trapped in a service elevator in the World Trade Centre on the day of the terrorist attacks. To some extent, these characters represent a cross-section of different types, but in the film adaptation that sense of a diverse slab of American life is provided more by the incongruous collection of actors than by the characters they play, with Sheen appearing as Jeffery Cage, a wealthy businessman, Gina Gershon as his estranged wife, Eve, Luis Guzman as Eddie, a maintenance worker in the building, Wood Harris as Michael, a courier delivering material to the building, and Olga Fonda as Tina, a young woman on her way to break up with her lover, a wealthy businessman working on one of the top floors. Filling out the cast is Whoopi Goldberg as Metzie, an elevator operator who tries to steer the trapped quintet to a safe exit, and Jacqueline Bisset as Diane, Eve’s mother, and their only point of contact with the outside world after Eve realises she has a signal on her phone.
From the opening of the film, the theatrical overtones work brilliantly to capture the eerie calm of the morning before it all happened, along with the small contingencies and daily routines that led to people being in particular parts of the building at different times. Not surprisingly, the World Trade Centre is the main focus in these preliminary scenes, as its low-level procedural hum suggests a sleek, streamlined and well-oiled piece of infrastructure that is able to subsume its own internal workings and processes as seamlessly as it subsumes itself into the quotidian texture of the city as a whole. In the process, the Twin Towers are presented as a somewhat unremarkable, even banal space, to an extent not yet envisaged by a film about 9/11, imbuing the coming minutes and hours with an almost unbearably unsettling import. All that is anchored in a surprisingly restrained, dignified and “actorly” performance from Sheen, in what may well be the most naturalistic rendition of his entire career. While his allegiance with the 9/11 Truth Movement has alienated him from many fans and colleagues, he has always framed his beliefs as part of an investment in the ongoing legacy and significance of the event, and it feels as if that’s the version of his conspiratorial speculations that he is trying to promulgate here as well, much as the film elides anything about the actual ideological motivations of the attackers to alternately shift its focus to the most immediate and long-reaching ramifications of that day.
Eerier still is the film’s vision of 9/11 from the inside, since from the moment that the first plane hits virtually all the action is condensed to the elevator where the five characters find themselves trapped, along with the control deck in the basement. To a contemporary audience, it becomes clear pretty quickly that this is not a part of the building that was immediately destroyed, nor even a part that was close to the collision, but instead one of the parts that experienced the event as most people initially did – as a sudden jolt, followed by a series of distant noises, creaks and groans; a disruption to the circuits, communication and procedures of the building above all else. Because they’re in an elevator, though, our five characters remain poised at that moment for much longer than anyone else, suspended at the threshold at which the 1993 attacks were the last major disaster to hit the World Trade Centre. Indeed, they initially assume that what they’re experiencing is merely an elevator malfunction, so quickly does silence settle again on the building, as our awareness of the destruction quietly but surely coursing its way down towards them sets the scene for a version of 9/11 in which it’s not the initial contact between plane and building, but the gradual and inexorable collapse of the building, that constitutes the main source of horror.
More generally, or abstractly, it’s that sense of dawning awareness that makes the film so true to the horror of the original event, as the quintet’s dawning awareness of the full extent of what has happened to the building goes some way to recapturing the inchoate pace with which the apprehension of the sheer scale and reach of the event percolated across the rest of the United States at this time as well. At moments, that creates an almost science fiction or post-apocalyptic feel, as the characters try to read the elusive and elliptical dispatches they receive from a permanently altered world, parsing through the gradual leakage and then consolidation of information to paint a picture of an event that defies being visualised or conceptualised in its totality at this particular point in time. On the one hand, their perception of that event is anomously visceral, in that their position in the elevator shaft effectively identifies them with the structure of the building itself, bring them close enough to its core functions to hear, sense and feel its fundamental coordinates heaving and buckling in ways that those more directly impacted by the collision cannot. At the same time, their perception of the event is anomously abstracted as well, since while they may eventually be told about the flames and smoke by the people on the ground they’re about the only people in the Western world who can’t get access to an image of it.
Against that backdrop, the various little interpersonal dramas that emerge work quite poignantly to suggest the last vestige of the twentieth century continuing to exist in a bubble, but also a pre-emptive mechanism, a way of holding the next iteration of the United States at bay, even or especially if the characters don’t know what it is yet. The sheer incongruity of the cast works also eloquently to suggest a collection of characters displaced from their own trajectories, or even an entire cinematic economy – a pre-established set of genres, roles and expectations – turned awry by an audiovisual matrix that exceeds even its wildest nightmares and most ambitious capacity for spectacle. According to 9/11, at least, the attacks on the World Trade Centre marked the point at which cinema’s omniscience and power was finally disproven, as the containment of virtually all the action to the elevator makes the actual images of the Twin Towers all the more horrifying when we cut back to them, as Guigui does periodically throughout the narrative. At these moments, 9/11 arguably comes closer than any other film about the attacks to reinvesting these images with their primal horror, which brings the register of the film very close to horror as well, or at least realises that horror is the most appropriate register with which to regard the events.
While some critics may have taken exception, then, to the film using the attacks as the background to its interpersonal drama, or as the platform for a mere genre exercise, that all simply forms part of the film’s prescience that any film about 9/11 has to be about the footage of 9/11, and the extent to which that footage has managed to exceed any other audiovisual text that the twenty-first century has yet managed to produce. To acknowledge that, the film has to acknowledge its impotence in the face of that footage, and it does that quite eloquently, in a kind of counter-narrative to the body of cinematic work about 9/11, most of which has proceeded from the premise that any approach to the disaster either has to defy genre, or else use it as the basis of a new genre, such as the renewed superhero film. In fact, 9/11 does make a claim to a new post-9/11 genre, but it’s found footage horror rather than the world of Marvel heroics, as Guigui reserves his moments of greatest terror for those televisual depictions of the attacks found in situ, in the bars, homes and public spaces where most people first learned of the tragedy. It’s telling that we never see the Towers, after the attack, outside of this footage, as the discrepancy in visibility between the elevator and the building, and between the escape-room plot and the broader terrorism narrative, suggests some inexorable finitude of American pragmatism, rationality, know-how, common sense – whatever you call it – in the face of unimaginable globalised energies.
As the film proceeds, that allows Guigui to capture the evolution of images in television fixtures across the city in an almost unbearable way, until the events in the elevator almost play as a way of approaching and confronting the full tenor and horror of those images. No surprise, then, that the stuff taking place in the elevator feels more dated and mired in the past as the film proceeds, culminating with a Die Hard-like effort to escape the elevator shaft that feels like the last and faintest breath of the classical action genre. That’s not to say, exactly, that 9/11 is an action film, or even a late action film, but that it identifies the destruction of the Twin Towers as the moment at which a certain structure of feeling bound up with action cinema was forced to confront its inexorable limit and most distant horizon. Forged in the late 1970s, these films hyperbolized the spectacle of American machismo for a generation emasculated by Vietnam, and were in fact parodied by Sheen himself in films like Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux. While his role here is no less reflective, the effect isn’t parody anymore so much as a prescience that 9/11 was orchestrated in part to thwart exactly this brand of American confidence, just as the the horror of the attacks stemmed, in part, from how clinically they drew upon the storied tropes of American action cinema itself.
By the final scene, however, it feels as if the very spatial scheme – the very adherence to a cohesive spatiotemporal universe – that formed the substrate of action cinema has been undercut, as the total global reconfiguration ushered in by the attack thwarts and distorts the parameters of the elevator beyond any Cartesian or geometric orientation. Combined with the recourse to actual footage, and the camera’s impotence in the face of found footage, that suggests that the film adaptation of Elevator may be more successful than the play itself – or, rather, that the play’s meaning and impact was somewhat dormant until being translated to the big screen, where both the abstraction of the characters from the event and the sequestration of the characters within the event ramify much more dramatically when the theatrical space of the elevator has a counterpoint in the camera’s own agon with the footage of the attacks circulating on the multiple screens that it depicts.
In the end, then, 9/11 is beset by the extent to which media itself was mediated through this horrific event – the extent to which the event became twentieth-century media – allowing it to pull a remarkable sleight of hand by which it manages to dedicate itself to the first responders and victims without ever making an ideological statement about the perpetrators. The result is, oddly, one of the most insightful films about 9/11, despite featuring a Truther as its lead actor, although even Sheen’s role in it all is unclear by the end. We finish with him being consumed by the building, but whether it is a moment of martyrdom or punishment remains unclear, in a perfect and unsettling synecdoche for the way in which this most mediated and mediating of all events has left its contradictory, inchoate legacy on the American twenty-first century, and the global twenty-first century.