There is a danger when a movie deals with a tragedy on the colossal scale of Sept. 11, 2001, in that it may cheapen a very real and very profound moment that impacted millions of people.
Movies are great for dramatizing the far away or fictional, allowing us to munch away on our popcorn while wading through weighty subjects like world wars, schizophrenia, or damn, dirty apes.
But for an event nearly all of us experienced in very real horror either first hand or over our television screens, well you’re just asking for trouble.
I think this is why the new film “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” has proven to be so divisive amongst critics and audiences. It is a movie we’ve already lived through.
Just to get this out of the way, if you take away the baggage, “Extremely Loud” is a very good movie based on Jonathan Safran Foher’s equally divisive novel.
The story centers around 9-year-old Oskar Schell (played well beyond his years by Thomas Horn). Oskar suffers from social anxiety and a myriad of other personality quirks that are only expounded when his father, Thomas (played by Tom Hanks), is killed in one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
Thomas is ever coaxing his son to come out of his shell through various puzzles and scavenger hunts, so when Oskar finds a key in his father’s closet shortly after his father’s death he becomes convinced his father meant for him to find it.
The key was in an envelope with the word “black” written on it, so Oskar decides it is a name and devises a system for meeting every person with the last name Black in all of New York City.
Oskar meets a rainbow of faces as he travels throughout the five boroughs, all the while getting no closer to the owner of the key and withdrawing even further from his mother, Linda (dutifully played by Sandra Bullock).
Oskar even takes on a partner in his quest, a mysterious elderly mute man known only as The Renter (an expertly turned performance by Max von Sydow), who may or may not be Oskar’s long-lost grandfather.
“Extremely Loud” was directed by Stephen Daldry, who is best known for movies like “Billy Elliot,” “The Hours” and “The Reader.” Daldry does an excellent job of pulling together the movie’s “we are all connected, we shall overcome” theme all the while bravely placing the movie in the hands of his young lead, whose only previous experience in front of a camera was for Kid’s Week on “Jeopardy!”
Personally, I felt that “Extremely Loud” was emotionally poignant and one of the best movies of the year, focusing much more on one boy’s journey through grief than wallowing in the heartbreak of 9/11.
Of course, I enjoy the luxury of distance and did not know anyone directly affected by the events of that day as I watched it all unfold from 1,000 miles away. At the time I hadn’t even visited New York City or Washington, D.C.
For anyone for whom that day was a little more real and painful, I completely understand how this movie could make them uncomfortable. That’s only fair.
I think what is unfair though is the most common criticism against “Extremely Loud,” which claims it is an “emotionally manipulative exploitation of a tragedy.”
First of all, movies are supposed to manipulate our emotions, granted we like the manipulations to be as subtle as possible, but still. Secondly, “Extremely Loud” is infinitely less exploitative of a real human tragedy than movies like, say, “Titanic.”
I’m pretty sure if we had watched the doomed ocean liner sink beneath the surface with our very own eyes we would have been a little more off-put by Kate and Leo’s lightweight romance set to a soaring Celine Dion soundtrack.
The point is that movies can never compete with our own experiences and in the rare cases when the two-run up against each other there are likely going to be some icky feelings we can’t resolve.
Perhaps just being about 9/11 is this movie’s greatest sin, as it is a well-made and well-acted as any film you’ll see this year. The fact of the matter is that we all already know how we feel about that day and no movie is ever going to change that.
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is rated PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images, and language.