Until 9/11, the trick to making a blockbuster action movie was pretty straightforward: invent a flawed but heroic main character, create a bloodthirsty villain, and come up with a terrorist plot so awful, so apocalyptic, that the only acceptable ending is a happy one. It is axiomatic in Hollywood action movies that nerve gas will not, at the last minute, be sprayed over the city; that a nuclear device will not, at the last minute, explode at the Super Bowl; that the World Trade Center will not, at the last minute, come crashing down on thousands of good and decent people.
Until the other day, Hollywood, like the rest of America, believed in the near miss and the last-minute save. Things change.
In script writing, there is something we call the “turn,” a moment when the main character changes in some essential way. In High Noon, a movie I’ve been watching every few days since September 11, Gary Cooper’s high-minded, determined marshal realizes, about two-thirds in, that he can’t count on the feckless, cowardly townspeople to stand by him as he faces down a killer bent on revenge. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character turns when he realizes that he loves Andie MacDowell — really loves her — and that the only way to win her is to become a better man.
Something turned on September 11, and it happened somewhere between the two flights that hit the World Trade Center and the one that hit the ground outside Pittsburgh.
Think, for a minute, the unthinkable (or the previously unthinkable). You are on one of the first two planes. It is hijacked. There are a few stabbings and a few people are dead. You try to remain calm. Because you are an American, and Americans are essentially rational people who prefer to think that the rest of the world is rational, too, you know in your bones that there is some way out of this. The pilot will land the plane. It will be surrounded by police and the FBI. Negotiations will begin, and the story will, after days of wrangling and CNN and tarmac sitting, eventually have a modified happy ending. Because you don’t know that the hijackers have no intention of landing the plane, because you can’t imagine such evil, you remain calm. You sit tight. You go along. In this movie, the hijackers’ real weapon isn’t a box cutter or a pair of tweezers, it’s that they know that the plane is doomed and you do not. They know what they’re about to do and you don’t.
The people on the Pittsburgh flight were in a different movie. They knew. And so they struggled with their hijackers and ditched the plane in the middle of a meadow, killing themselves but saving who knows how many, who knows what.
It isn’t that the Pittsburgh plane was filled with brave people and the first two were not. It’s that the first two planes were filled with Americans who simply did not know, and that the later one was filled with Americans who did. Somewhere in the skies above Pittsburgh, the American character turned.
But not much. The fact that the Pittsburgh plane was filled with normal Americans, businessmen with wives and kids — let’s face it: yuppies — and not with the political science department of a typically left-wing university is the difference between a White House that’s still standing and a smoldering ruin on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Conservatives will pretend they knew all along that the bedrock character of Americans was essentially unchanged over the years, but they will be lying. Anyone paying attention to our culture must admit to at least a nagging sense of things sliding out of control. The whole lurid tapestry of the past 20 years — its fantastic riches and late — Roman Empire vibe, its school shootings and cultural coarsening — has left a fat and dazed population barely able to stir itself to find the TV clicker.
Political consultants have long relied on a measure of satisfaction called the “right track/wrong track” number. When the number of people who believe the country is on the “right track” exceeds the number who don’t, the result is the maintenance of the political status quo; when it’s reversed, so are the fortunes of those in office. For the last ten years or so, right-trackers have trounced wrong- trackers steadily and reliably.
But who really believed we were on the “right track”? We were rich, of course — richer than any civilization in the history of the world — but we were also lost. One of the great strengths of American civilization is its capacity for change, but that same engine of renewal means that every so often, we forget who we really are. We forget the history of grime and disease and sacrifice that built the country. We forget the poverty and hard work of our forebears. We forget that America is more than a bull market and a minivan and a satellite television. We forget that we’re more — or at least that we’re supposed to be more — than the collection of things our prosperity drops at our doorstep. One of the reasons, it seems to me, that “reality TV” shows are so popular is that Americans want to see other Americans up close. We want to find out about ourselves. After years of fragmenting prosperity and social upheaval and urban flight and middle-class hunkering down, we want to be reintroduced.
And so when a band of three or four normal guys takes down a plane near Pittsburgh because it’s the right thing to do — because, fundamentally, they believe in the very concept of “right” and “wrong” — we’re all probably breathing a sigh of relief. Because America is filled with guys like that. Because America is filled with characters waiting for their turn.
It has been said in newspaper editorials and network broadcasts that September 11 was the day that everything changed. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that September 11 was the day that everything changed back.