Hey, Henry, where were you on "the worst day"? Oh, that's right, you were sitting in the theater next to me while we watched September 11th grief porn Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a collective trauma-tapping drama about how that day's tragic events ravaged the innocence of a nation as pure as a precocious young boy with blond hair and deep blue eyes. Except, wait, protagonist Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn)—whose jeweler father Thomas (Tom Hanks), died in the attacks—is kind of a jerk, right? He may have Asperger's, he says, but he's also a compulsive liar, possibly a racist and traitor: he tells a black shopkeeper that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has been moved to a different date, and tells his Upper East Side co-op's doorman (John Goodman) that Presidents' Day has changed too. Irritating, fallible narration aside, Horn does a good job being a twerp. And in any case what's best about Extremely Loud are its small pleasures, like its strong supporting cast: Zoe Caldwell as Oskar's grandmother; Max von Sydow as his mute estranged grandfather; The Help's Viola Davis as Abby Black, the first stop on the boy's quest to discover the lock for a mysterious key found in his father's closet; and Jeffrey Wright as Abby's ex-husband. And how about all that location shooting? What was your favorite nod to New York City geography? And how do you think Philadelphians feel about being the butt of one of this adaptation's many clumsily over-emphasized metaphors?
Ha, he was kind of a jerk, Ben—the way he made a restaurant worker stay past close, or trashed that factory, or held up a taxi to confab with its passenger. He embodied the caricature of the new, post-Giuliani New Yorker, the self-centered resident who considers the city his personal plaything. The movie is a lot of fun as a contemporary travelogue (hey, it's our beloved Sunny's! And the intersection of Front and Pearl streets!), as the movie's junior detective story—imbued with phony gravitas via terrorism—takes Oskar from Queens to Brooklyn, exploring the city's diversity to discover that most New Yorkers are fundamentally sympathetic and kind (as long as they don't live in Rockaway). But the city also comes across as a baby-proofed wonderland, in which an unaccompanied minor's greatest concern when gabbing with a group of homeless people in Central Park, or walking over the Manhattan Bridge to Fort Greene, or climbing into a car with a strange adult, is whether he can muster the courage to overcome his social anxieties. I guess he has bigger things to worry about, like strangers flying planes into buildings?
That, or bombing the subway, which is his excuse for carrying out his investigation entirely on foot until von Sydow joins him. Oskar's quest to discover the meaning of his MacGuffin is about the journey not the goal, no matter how adamantly he denies it. As he tracks down every person in New York whose last name is Black in an effort to make sense of a fundamentally senseless act he only becomes more determined to find some explanation for it. The timing of his investigation, which begins on the first anniversary of the attacks and goes through the winter of 2002 into 2003, parallels exactly the Bush administration's search for "evidence" and deployment of fear-mongering rhetoric in anticipation of launching the war in Iraq. Like that conflict and its search for weapons of mass destruction, Oskar's quest turns out to be a much more long-term affair than he'd initially thought—only three years though, so not so bad by comparison. This almost seems too tidy (and, I imagine, well-trod) a reading of Extremely Loud's hero as a stand-in for Bush & co., all a bunch of frightened little boys trying to assign clear motives and morals to a situation more complex than they understand. Crucially both enterprises, Oskar's investigation and Bush's Gulf War II, are inseparable from their perpetrators' desire to make their fathers proud. But speaking of timing, I find it surprising that it's taken this long for a 9/11 movie to be a major Oscar contender. What, to my mind, is the most comparable national trauma garnered Academy gold much quicker: six years after the U.S. withdrew from the Vietnam conflict Deer Hunter swept the awards. And in the last decade we've had plenty of Iraq war movies; why, Henry, are we only seeing a 9/11 movie up for this many Oscars now? What does Extremely Loud have that World Trade Center or United 93 didn't?
That's a tricky question, Ben, because while Extremely Loud has been nominated, it was only by a hair—many observers expected it to be shut out, as it has from most other awards ceremonies and every other major category except Best Supporting Actor. I presume what happened is that this mawkish telling of 9/11—which, for me, diminishes (rather than humanizes) the event by making its tragedy that of one little boy, like when Spielberg destroys the world to save one family—appealed to a certain bloc of Academy members: those who enjoy voice-overs that narrate a character shrugging his shoulders with "he shrugged his shoulders" (aka "the blind"); those who enjoy aestheticized slow motion close-ups of a Falling Man; those who enjoy quirky supporting characters like a walkie-talkieing grandma with a thick accent, or an eccentric stranger who can't speak; those who like lots of crane shots and screaming and crying; and those who like a movie to grab them by the collar and toss them around, screaming, "sad, right? Huh? Aren't you fucking sad? You hear this music I'm playing? Fucking sad, right?" Meanwhile I'm in the back of the theater, crying uncle, Ben. Uncle!
Follow Benjamin Sutton on Twitter @LMagArt and Henry Stewart @henrycstewart