Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Postliterate History and The Path to 9/11

We watched part one of The Path to 9/11 last night. I followed much of the political hoohah around it, but ultimately decided I’d take a look at it myself. I would have reviewed it earlier, but I was not sent a preview copy unlike, apparently, every conservative blogger.

Oh, well, I suppose I can forgive ABC its oversight.

I wanted to watch the film as a student of film and history because it gives rare insight into how historical events are reshaped when retold in the visual medium.

Robert Rosentone’s book Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History, which I discovered back in my grad school days while researching World War Two films, presents a fascinating exploration of how historical films (esp. narrative films) change people’s perceptions of history:

In privileging visual and emotional data and simultaneously downplaying the analytic, the motion picture is subtly – and in ways we don’t yet know how to measure or describe – altering our very sense of the past.

This alteration of the past becomes especially important to consider as increasing numbers of people get their history from visual media. Rosenstone describes a shift to a postliterate society in which reading becomes less important than viewing; images and emotions more important than analysis; entertainment more important than anything.

Here we are now. Entertain us.

This works because film pretends to reality. By appearing realistic, a movie can become for many viewers, a record of reality. What happens to a society that bases its decisions about the future on a manufactured past? We may be about to find out.

The best history of what led to the attacks will probably not be written for many, many years. I think the best we have now is the 9/11 Commission Report, which I read shortly after it was published.

The relationship between the ABC film and the report is the biggest issue for many people because of how the film assigns blame. There is plenty of blame to cast around, but ultimately the blame – all of it – rests with the murderers who planned and executed the attacks.

Clinton and his administration could have done more to stop this in the nineties. We should remember, though, that whenever Clinton did try anything (for instance the cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan) he was called on the carpet by a Republican party more interested in his sex life than national security.

Bush and his administration could have done more in the first months of his presidency, but he inherited a certain complacency about national security issues from the GOP of the nineties and was generally more interested in cutting taxes and clearing brush on his ranch.

Carter and Reagan could have allowed the Soviets to crush the Mujahadeen instead of choosing a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ policy that now is directed at us. We could blame the British Empire even for leaving such a mess from their imperial days in the region.

You can blame all the way back to the beginning of time, but when memories are short and an election looms, the neat package of narrative film can create a nice, easily digestible version of recent events that for many years will become the remembered history.

It’s as the great director John Ford once said, when choosing between myth and reality, print the myth.

With the mid-term elections approaching both sides seek any advantage and in this case the left claims, not without justification, that the right gets an advantage from this film that at times does make the Clinton administration look weak and timid. The right is seizing control of the myths.

What the film leaves out is the complexity. Filmmakers tell simple stories that focus on a small number of issues and characters through whose eyes we see larger events. The problem comes in that these simple stories have the effect of personalizing and simplifying history as well as localizing it into the framework of the narrative.

We lose sight of the fact that Clinton did try to kill Bin Laden. We lose sight of the fact that these problems go back much farther than the 1993 WTC bombing.

In our collective aversion to complex issues and our desire to win partisan advantage by equating our political adversaries with our mortal enemies we choose a new, and yet, very old approach to understanding our past: storytelling.

Rosentone describes historical film as being analogous to the oral story telling tradition:

Perhaps film is the postliterate equivalent of the preliterate way of dealing with the past, of those forms of history in which scientific, documentary accuracy was not yet a consideration, forms in which any notion of fact was of less importance than the sound of a voice, the rhythm of a line, the magic of words.

Film moralizes and takes away the gray areas that exist everywhere in life. It attempts to represent reality in a way that can be grasped in two hours, in a way that entertains. This is as old as humans telling stories around the fire, and it’s very satisfying.

Furthermore, a good story needs heroes such as the investigators working tirelessly to stop the terrorists. It needs villians such as the Al Qaeda terrorists themselves. It also needs tragedy such as a nation wounded by a tragic flaw: the cowardice and moral weakness of its leader.

Tragedy is powerful stuff, but it’s also a dramatic construct and not a very useful tool for examining history. In this case, it has the effect of laying blame on Clinton instead of on the partisan zeal with which we do political battle. It obscures the fact that blame falls on our way of doing politics at the expense of the country.

The greatest problem comes when societies mistake their stories for their histories. Truly a tragic situation, for it gets in the way of learning from the past, leaving us to repeat its mistakes.

1 Comment

  1. Very nicely explained. I haven’t been able to put into words why so many of the documentaries that have come out in the last few years have grated on me. And this oversimplification of film is a big part of it, I think. How long until we’ve entered the 1984 world that Wells feared — one where the government in power can modify the truth that people believe? It scares the bejeebers out of me.

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