Every week, the CriticWire Survey asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: Non-fiction disaster movies are a time-honored genre, and they don’t appear to be going anywhere: “Sully” is a huge hit, “Deepwater Horizon” performed solidly at the box office this weekend, and Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg will be re-teaming for “Patriot’s Day” later this year. With that in mind, what is the ultimate value of a blockbuster film that dramatizes tragic (or nearly tragic) events? Why do we keep making them, and — perhaps more importantly — why do we keep watching them?
The difference between movies about recent disasters and historical ones is that people involved in recent ones may be around to sue or complain or collaborate, often constraining the characterizations and narrowing the films. This makes “Sully” all the more remarkable an achievement — it goes where few modern disaster films go, into the mind of the hero, to depict an imaginary realm that’s so often truncated in films about the living. Disaster films — “Sully” in the lead — depict the existential terror that haunts the daily lives of ordinary people while also turning those personal fears collective. Disasters smash social boundaries and veneers to reveal people’s elemental traits of character, such as courage, judgment, and generosity; it’s a democratic genre. It’s also an individualistic one that, in its emphasis on personal qualities and actions, on improvisation, on situations and responses for which there’s no rulebook, turns its exceptionalism into a sort of rule (that’s why the anti-bureaucratic strain of “Sully,” thrust to the fore, makes it an exemplary film in the genre).
Most dramatizations of real-world tragedies offer comfort to those affected by imposing reason and meaning on otherwise senseless loss. It’s comforting — albeit phony, but phony in a forgivable and even productive way, like how musicals are phony — to believe that the people fighting for survival in a perilous environment were good, or lived meaningful lives. (Ever notice how there aren’t any movies about really shitty people surviving the Holocaust through tenacity of spirit?) Wrestling something as un-understandable as a national or global-scale catastrophe into order through the creation of a narrative is art’s little way of beating back the chaos of life, the cruel arbitrariness of the universe, whatever you like to call it. And of course, the best of the best conclude with a more ambiguous note, underscoring and embracing that unknowability.
As for whether cries of “too soon!” hold water for me, I say sure. The way I think of it, nobody’s gonna watch “Titanic” and take that personally. A more recent event, however, would naturally have more viewers with a direct link to it, who may be sensitive to the film in question’s depiction and manipulation of the truth. The main objection to tragedy flicks is the exploitation of real hardship for fake gravitas — I’ve seen the neologism ‘tragedy porn’ used before, though I have qualms with the term’s implied badmouthing of good ol’ pornography — and the more people alive who remember the cataclysm at hand, the greater risk a film runs of ruffling feathers.
Now as to why we keep making tragedy movies: $35 million opening weekend for “Sully,” baby! “Lone Survivor” was a money factory, and “Deepwater Horizon” will do just as well, in all likelihood. Which leads to the second part of the third part of your question, why we keep ponying up to see these sorts of pictures. That, I can’t say for sure; I myself have never been a big fan of this genre, excepting that movie where the twist is that R-Pattz dies in 9/11. If I was to take an educated guess, though, I’d suppose that audiences like to feel inspired and such films often wrap up with a message of hope and resilience. It’s cathartic, right?
READ MORE: “Sully” Review: Tom Hanks Plays The Hero, But The Crash Is The Real Star Of The Show
When it comes to dramatizing disasters, it’s all about myth making, no matter how recent or distant the events. For the more current stories, it tends to be (or should be) less about spectacle and more about setting up a hero through a character-centered story. It can still be entertaining, but not in an exploitative way. It’s the further back tragedies that can be romanticized and centered around fictional love and true destruction. Why do we keep watching them? To wonder how we would have acted in those situations and appreciate the heroes who were better than we’d have been and also, for the more distant stuff, just for the thrill of it. If there is fictionalization involved, we’re not really watching the true sinking of the “Titanic” anyway and we can pretend it’s all fictional people dying. But here’s where I have to be on brand: the doc options are always better anyway. Go see “Tower!”
One of the most common observations in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was that the image of the smoldering World Trade Center was “like a movie.” This implied the presence of something so horrifying it didn’t have a place in a reality we could understand. Disaster movies exploit that disconnect. (Even the good ones.) Since the invention of movies, we have turned to them for windows into worlds that exist beyond our own reference points. Sometimes those worlds are exciting, funny, or strange — and sometimes they’re mortifying, but when you’re not in the thick of it, you can just sit back and watch. We read about so many terrible things happening in the world with a degree of remove that generates morbid curiosity; disaster movies offer the possibility of temporarily closing the gap without experiencing any of consequences. That’s partly why so many these movies give us the easy access of heroes — Tom Hanks, Mark Wahlberg — rather than lingering on death. It’s easier to watch a survivor story than a meditation on death. Everyone loves “Sully,” hardly anyone went to see “United 93” (which was the better movie). So long as there are ways to present disaster movies through the lens of survival, we will see more of them.
I suspect that it’s because these movies focus on an event so mind-boggling or so fraught with modern nightmare elements we crave to see them sanitized through storytelling. A movie encapsulates them and makes them feel resolved. The very act of placing a recent event like the Miracle on The Hudson or the Deepwater Horizon incident into a film creates a safe distance from the terror we felt that day, maybe? It gives us some level of closure. We’re soothed by seeing endurance and survival. The further back the movie is set, the greater the risk of sentimentality, and the greater the risk of audiences assuming the issues at the story’s core (for instance the racial injustices of “12 Years A Slave”) are solidly behind us.
I think the best (and maybe only) reason to dramatize these sorts of events is to make sense of the recent past outside the headlines, for the first time. It’s like a collective memoir, where “what happened” begins to get shaped into “why did it happen,” and done outside the immediacy of the events. And while I think we buy the ticket for the spectacle, we keep coming back because there’s something important about narrating and re-narrating our own history. We do it individually after personal tragedies, to friends and in essays and stories. At their best, these are a collective ways of dealing with fresh communal grief and, sometimes issuing a warning.
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