(September 2, 2006) — They were events that glued a disbelieving world to their television sets: the attacks on the World Trade Center, the death of Princess Diana, the breaching of New Orleans’ levees during Hurricane Katrina.
Three films showcased at the 63rd Venice Film Festival revisit the traumas that, each in their own way and dimension, were pivotal events seared into the collective conscience. The timing of the films in relation to the events that inspired them provokes the question: how much distance does cinema need to revisit tragedy?
Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” shows Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II struggling to find the appropriate public face following Princess Diana’s unexpected death in a car crash on Aug. 31, 1997. The movie premiered at the festival on Saturday.
Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” currently being shown in U.S. theaters, is a memorial to those who risked their lives to save people trapped inside the twin towers after the Sept. 11 terror attacks nearly five years ago.
Spike Lee’s documentary, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” about the Hurricane Katrina disaster, debuted on HBO this week a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.“The Queen” script writer Peter Morgan said that the near-decade that has elapsed since Diana’s death was absolutely necessary to give the events proper perspective.
“You needed the time for the spectacle of Diana’s death to diminish,” Morgan said. “You realize now that the queen’s memory eclipses that of Diana’s. The queen has gone up to the pantheon of untouchable queens, while history now makes clear that Diana was a troubled figure and she wasn’t the archangel or icon.”
Frears effectively weaves in archive footage of TV coverage of the events with Helen Mirren’s portrayal of a stoic Elizabeth striving to protect the dignity of the monarchy and Michael Sheen’s portrayal of the newly elected Tony Blair’s efforts to prevent the appearance of inaction from permanently damaging the monarchy.
Seemingly caught in between, a nervous Prince Charles, played by Alex Jennings, is unable to persuade his mother that Diana’s popularity requires her to ditch protocol.
With his mother insisting that Diana’s death should be mourned privately, Charles’ secretary at one point calls Blair to express sympathy with Blair’s position that Diana’s funeral should be public, the movie reveals.
Stone traveled to Venice with John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, the two Port Authority police officers whose rescue is recounted in “World Trade Center,” and their wives. For them, there was no question that the time is right for their story to be told.
“It’s never too soon to honor those who gave their lives to save other human beings,” Jimeno said at a news conference.
The movie has been a huge box office hit in the United States, and Stone said he was convinced the film would play well around the world.
Stone defended the element of revenge for the attacks presented in the film through the character of Dave Karnes, a former Marine who went to New York and helped locate the trapped officers in 16 acres of rubble and who later did two tours of duty in Iraq.
“It would be wrong for me to become politically correct at this stage of my life, and by that I mean to ignore the facts,” Stone said. “Dave Karnes went back to Iraq precisely for the reasons of revenge, and we have to deal with that. The American people felt anger and they felt the desire for revenge that day.”
Lee presented his film Friday night at Venice, where he was last year when the hurricane struck New Orleans with devastating ferocity.
“I was here in Venice one year ago today, and instead of seeing the wonderful films, I was in my hotel room riveted to the TV set, watching images I could not believe were coming from America,” Lee said.
While Frears’ and Stone’s films needed more distance, Lee said he was trying to provoke action with his documentary.
“We hope this film will bring about a quicker rebuilding of New Orleans. Not just New Orleans, but the whole Gulf region,” Lee said.