9/11: Censorship in Film

Image by Zeitgeist (Film Series) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeitgeist_(film_series)

After the events of 9/11, the nation changed in just about every manner and the scale of this attack devastated men and women all across the country. As the War on Terror was taking off, popular culture was inevitably altered as well. Producers in Hollywood were forced to edit television shows, pull movie scenes and even cancel productions all together if there was any chance that the film could be reminiscent of the collapse of the Twin Towers. Mixed emotions of fear and worry had Americans believing that it could have been them in the World Trade Center that day and any big screen references to plane crashes, shootings, bombings hit much too close to home. Filmmakers and TV producers continued to work on their projects, but ultimately felt as though the only way to approach this sensitive situation that had resulted from the 9/11 attacks was through censorship in film.

In the weeks following the attacks, people tiptoed around almost every possibly offensive topic. Movies based on strong terrorist plots were the first to be rewritten, and scenes involving plane hijacking were carefully edited. In the ending scene of the children’s film Lilo and Stitch, producers thought it was best to reconstruct the 747 plane that weaved throughout the skyscrapers of a large metropolitan city and replace it with an alien looking spacecraft that flew among tropical mountains. Even comical threats on television regarding airport security resulted in the deletion of a scene in an episode of Friends, titled “The One Where Rachel Tells,” in which Chandler lands himself in trouble after joking about bombing the airport. In other instances the references were a bit subtler. For years the Twin Towers were used by producers as significant structures in the recognition of the New York skyline. Today, we know the most recognized building in New York City to be the Empire State Building, but it was not always that way.

Movies such as Independence Day, and other films deeply rooted in the obliteration of Earth and mankind, often encompassed the destruction of both national monuments and global monuments. For a while, films had started to become more rational and down-to-earth. However, after a few years had passed, movies like Steven Spielberg’s The War of the Worlds debuted. The film is as deeply ingrained in total destruction as it sounds. This movie did anything but shy away from tragedy. Families were forced to cower in fear of being abducted by unknown creatures. Men and women ran wild as buildings came plummeting to the ground and unexpected explosions took the lives of innocent victims. Although people were still sensitive to the many lives lost on September 11th, this exaggerated and destructive setting was interpreted by many as Hollywood’s way of finally beginning to come to terms with what had happened only four short years ago.

The most dramatic shift in film came as America continued on its path to fight the War on Terror. After it was discovered that Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist group were directly involved in the 9/11 attacks, the world’s focus was then shifted to the Middle East. In movies such as Iron Man, it appeared as though patriotic sentiment was expressed through scenes of the blowing up of Middle Eastern towns and terrorist weapon supplies. Al-Qaeda-like terrorist groups became the ideal enemies on screen. Gradually these “bad guy” characters, predominately played by Muslim-Americans, were turned solely into Muslim terrorist characters whom would do anything in their power to destroy the American way of life. It was at this point that blatant prejudice against Muslims began to be mistaken for American patriotism in the eyes of some Americans. Another cinematic tool that has been carved from the destruction of the World Trade Center is the ability for this tragedy to evoke a strong sense of imagery when dealing with romantic dramas. The powerful sensation of the loss of a loved one can clearly be connected to the event that took thousands of lives on one unexpected morning.

It was evident that the 9/11 attacks played a central role in the shift in tone and content of modern films. Plotlines infused with terrorist references were painfully clear links to the attacks. Hollywood acknowledged the horror of the events of 9/11 but understood that there was no way to properly depict the chaos on the big screen. It was assumed that the best way to deal with this tragedy was to stay silent as a supportive response (Bradshaw 1). This reaction, however, was not limited to television and film. The use of censorship was widely shared by radio and the media, although social media was just beginning to explode in technological popularity. Late night comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live struggled immensely with an appropriate response. As a show that is known for poking fun at every day news and hardships, no one dared to touch on this extremely sensitive issue. Cast members and directors of SNL were conflicted, not knowing whether or not it was too soon to start cracking jokes again. The SNL show following 9/11 could not have done a better job of uniting the American people than it did that day. Accompanied by the city’s first-responders and show creator Lorne Michaels, then Mayor of New York City Rudolph Giuliani addressed the audience directly in front of him, and the millions of Americans all across the country eyes glued to their TV sets. He started the show with an unforgettable opening exchange. “Can we be funny?”, asked Michaels. Giuliani responded with three words, “Why start now.” It was a powerful and important moment for Americans. It showed a glimpse of faith in the American people and made a clear statement that the United States of America, when knocked down, would get right back up again.


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