MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Digital Nation: ‘Rescue Me’ From Uninformed Punditry About Hollywood and 9/11 …

In the lead-up to 9/11/11, two unrelated events prompted me to add my thoughts to the national conversation about one of the most disturbing and unconscionable attacks on non-combatants in history. Like most Americans, I’ve been given no deeply personal cause to obsess over the attacks. Neither do I need repeated visual reminders of the collapse of the Twin Towers to recall the horror I felt or a columnist to tell me how to feel about it a decade later. Anyone who does probably shouldn’t be allowed to drive heavy equipment or work with children.

What I do know is that tens of thousands of Americans continue to suffer mightily from the consequences of what happened on September 11, 2001, and the fanaticism of the men who hijacked the four planes wasn’t inspired by a single newspaper article, movie or prayer. Nothing so banal as a sudden cowardly impulse or the placing of a wake-up call to a slumbering superpower could have had such a profound impact on so many people around the world.

“Rescue Me,” a terrific television series that couldn’t have existed if it weren’t for 9/11, ended its seven-season run this week and will arrive in DVD on Tuesday. Starring Denis Leary as a New York City firefighter who survived the Twin Towers collapse but lost dozens of friends and a cousin in a relative heartbeat, “Rescue Me,” examines how a couple dozen New Yorkers struggled to make sense of the atrocity, cope with their pain and report to work in a nearly empty firehouse. Their experiences mirrored those of tens of thousands of other people in the same situation, while never forgetting that audiences came to the show to be entertained, provoked and challenged.

The other thing that bothered me enough to pick up my keyboard and write a column was the publication of a pair of exceedingly stupid articles bemoaning Hollywood’s “failure” to comment or commemorate the tragedy in some meaningful way. God knows, I’ve taken more than my fair share of shots at the Hollywood establishment, which has turned to comic books and video games for its primary sources of inspiration. To blame it for abdicating a responsibility it never had and couldn’t possibly have earned – based, we’re told, on a bunch of gung-ho World War II movies that had little bearing to reality — is sheer folly.

The first column appeared in the conservative Washington Times, which, outside of the nation’s capital and a few homes in South Korea, might as well not exist. The other, however, appeared on Huffington Post/AOL, an influential Internet service that caters to the insufferable opinions of celebrities, hyper-local news reports by freelancers who get paid by volume and liberals of the limousine and armchair variety. At a time when blogs and aggregators automatically link to anything with the words “Hollywood,” “Movies” or “Kardashian” in the headline, such digital scribbling takes on a life of its own.

In his HuffPo piece, someone named Saki Knafo opined, “Hollywood has yet to come up with a definitive depiction of what happened that day. It was one of the most dramatic events in American history, and Hollywood’s reaction has been to mostly ignore it.” He insinuated that the major studios had failed to create images of the Twin Towers that were more powerful than the images already seared into our memory. Does this mean he wants to see what it might have been like for the poor souls stuck inside of the stricken buildings? Does he want to share the final moments of the people who commited suicide by jumping out of windows on the upper floors … a sight spared most American audiences? Does he want screenwriters to conjure visions of firefighters and cops doing what they could to rescue people doomed to die in the collapse, based solely on facts not in evidence?

In the WashTimes, a Christian Toto led with this haymaker, “When the United States went to war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the film industry soon followed suit. Movies like “Flying Tigers” (1942), “Wake Island” (1942) and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944) rallied the nation to the Allied cause. … Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and Clark Gable personally joined the battle, while famed director Frank Capra oversaw ‘Why We Fight,’ a series of films meant to inspire the troops. … Even Bugs Bunny did his part, with shorts like the provocatively titled “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips.” (I’m not sure how “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” qualifies as a quick response by Hollywood, but let’s humor Mr. Toto.) Like Bonnie Tyler, the author is holding out for a hero and he blames political correctness in Hollywood for not giving him one.

The Pentagon, of course, tried its best to do just that by fabricating a story about the death by Pat Tillman, the NFL star who enlisted after 9/11 and joined the Army Rangers. If Tillman’s family hadn’t discovered the official cover-up – which led right to the White House — and denounced it publically, Hollywood would have happily took the bait and run with it. The same, of course, nearly happened in the case of Iraq veteran Jessica Lynch, the American soldier who had been injured and captured by insurgents after a firefight in the desert and rescued a week later by Special Forces troops. Lynch later told a House panel investigating the incident, the Pentagon had erroneously portrayed her as a “Rambo from the hills of West Virginia.” In the face of that evidence, along with material presented in such documentaries as “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Rush to War” and “No End in Sight,” among others, who could seriously blame Hollywood for being cautious? Hell, many of us are still waiting for the truth about the policy decisions that led to Japan attacking Pearl Harbor and the U.S. involvement in Vietnam to be examined on film, let alone a calamity as rife with conspiracy theories and official malfeasance as 9/11.

The assault on Tora Bora might have had produced several stories in the Audie Murphy vein, if President Bush’s decision to leave Osama Bin Laden’s capture to the Afghan warlords hadn’t allowed him to escape. We’ve since learned that specially trained American troops were in position to move in first, but bizarro politics vetoed such an arrangement. Washington also led us to believe that Bin Laden’s health was failing and he couldn’t last long as a fugitive. After the raid in which the Al Qaeda leader was killed, it was reported that no dialysis machine or any other medical machinery was found in his home. What if a movie studio had made a movie about the war, using widely disseminated disinformation as a source for its portrayals?

And, yes, Hollywood has tried to make pictures that have honored our troops and addressed issued relating to 9/11. As good as some of them have been – many ignoring the voices of dissent, others questioning the secrecy and arrogance of our leaders — audiences have voted, “No,” with their wallets.

Contrary to what Mr. Toto claims, the “Why We Fight” films weren’t made to “inspire our troops,” but to convince them and the public that a worldwide conflict was in the best interest of the U.S. Up until the day before December 7, 1941, many of the country’s most prominent pundits, business executives and politicians continued to advocate isolationist policies. Although such feelings disappeared overnight, the long debate must have had some effect on soldiers and civilians who read something besides the sports pages of the newspaper. Pinups of Betty Grable and the comedy of Bob Hope were used to “inspire” our troops, not the broad ethnic stereotypes contained in “Prelude to War.” Frank Capra also wanted to counter the Nazi propaganda machine – Leni Riefenstahl’s monumental, “Triumph of the Will,” specifically – and deliver Pentagon-approved messages to the public.

Neither was it necessary for Hollywood to employ its rhetorical power to convince young Americans to join the fray after 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. Until President Bush decided Saddam Hussein was more dangerous than Bin Laden, precious little dissent was heard anywhere in the United States. I was in Berkeley a few days after 9/11 and attended a rally of antiwar activists that could have been held in the living room of my home, instead of Sproul Plaza. The world was in our corner, as well. After the blitzkrieg invasion of Iraq and subsequent mishandling of the “victory,” however, even the American people stopped paying attention to our triumph.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker” was full of heroes and heroics, but it barely broke even at the box office. Oliver Stone’s heartfelt drama, “World Trade Center,” which Knafo considers “overwrought and bad,” split critics 50/50, but only returned $70.2 million of its reported $63-million budget. I was moved by it, but can understand why some viewers might not want to spend two hours among the smoldering ruins. Two dramatizations of the passenger revolt aboard United Flight 93 were made: one for television; the other for theaters by the estimable Paul Greengrass. The critically lauded movie, at least, did comparatively well at the box office.

In “The Guys,” Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia combined their talents to tell a story about eight firefighters killed in the holocaust and a writer’s struggles to write individual eulogizes for them. Tremendously poignant and moving, the adaptation of Anne Nelson’s play and script was only shown on 15 U.S. screens, before going to video. In “11’09”01: September 11,” 11 of the world’s most prominent filmmakers contributed 11, 11-minute films, describing the effects of the attacks on people around the world. It was seen more overseas than in the U.S. In 2007, Michael Winterbottom’s “A Mighty Heart” chronicled the assassination of journalist Daniel Pearl at the hands of some of the same terrorists who planned 9/11. The British filmmaker had previously contributed the documentaries, “The Road to Guantanamo” and “In This World.” If the major studios’ more-expensive war movies didn’t draw flies, it wasn’t because the products were lacking marquee stars, powerful scripts and prominent marketing campaigns.

When some pundits write about Hollywood, they don’t take into account television, a medium that lately has offered the creative community significantly more freedom than it finds in theatrical films. Even on TV, however, 9/11 has remained in the background or been used to inform a storyline or episode. Three exceptions come immediately to mind, including “Rebirth,” a fine documentary by Jim Whitaker, which was given a limited release in New York theaters and on DVD last week, and will shown on Showtime on Sunday. For nearly a decade, Whitaker kept track of five people whose lives changed dramatically after the collapse of the Twin Towers. Each has found the recovery process to be difficult, but only insurmountable in a couple of cases. Showtime also gave us the two-season, 18-episode mini-series, “Sleeper Cell,” which detailed how a group of dedicated Islamic fundamentalists – not all of whom were of Arab ancestry – came together to replicate an attack the magnitude of 9/11, this time in southern California. Even though the cell had been infiltrated by an American agent, we never were sure if the terrible mission would succeed.

“Rescue Me” ended its seven-season run as it began, haunted by the memories of firefighters killed in the Twin Towers. Created by Peter Tolan and Leary, it focused directly on the firefighters who survived the disaster and ghosts of the men killed there. But nearly as prominent to the storylines were various family members, bartenders, cops, city and department bureaucrats, friends and lovers. Only about half the show took place in the firehouse. Like most successful prime-time dramas, “Rescue Me” found unusual ways to entertain, engross and infuriate its audience in almost equal measure, and without continually dredging up memories of things past. Being on cable, too, the writers enjoyed the freedom of being able to let their characters cuss, blaspheme, partake in lustful sex and drink themselves nearly to death on a weekly basis. They also fought fires in exactly the same way as they would have if 9/11 never happened.

Leary’s Tommy Gavin is the deeply flawed central character in “Rescue Me.” The loss of his cousin affected him in a profound way, primarily because he can’t understand why the deity to whom he prays pointed the two men in different directions on that day. Even given seven years distance, Gavin is unable to drown his survivor’s guilt in Irish whiskey or dull it with prescription pills. Still, the pugnacious Irishman remains the bravest of the NYFD’s 62 Truck and somehow, simultaneously, the show’s most galvanizing and divisive force. Did I also mention that “Rescue Me” often is wildly hilarious? It is.

The final episode of the show’s final season was scheduled to coincide with the 10th anniversary of 9/11. A visit to Ground Zero, maybe the first in the seven-year run, prompts an emotional firestorm that nearly causes his daughter’s wedding to “Black Shawn,” of the same 62 Truck, implode under the weight of Gavin’s ego. Another terrible fire and rescue mission provides the climatic challenge for all of the characters. It’s a devastating ending, featuring the full ensemble cast.

The DVD set arrives Tuesday, immediately after the encore episodes are exhausted. Among the bonus features are “Denis Loves Lenny: A Match Made in Hell,” “Balls,” “Kicking the Ashes and Mopping Up: An Attempt to Remember Season 6,” “The Creators’ Last Call,” “Burning the Actors at Both Ends” and a gag reel. The set includes both the sixth and seventh seasons.

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Digital Nation

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon