When it comes to cinema related to September 11, 2001, there's one very common complaint: director Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the worst. Not the worst in the sense that it gets the facts wrong or develops its own conspiracy. It's the worst because it is manipulative to a fault. True, the story of a child who is sort of nagging trying to maneuver New York following his father's death does reek a little of over-sentimentalizing. However, I want to bring a different argument to the table. It's one that I'm sure won't win over everyone but is essentially why I have trouble calling it out as garbage. It may not be the best 9/11 movie, but it's one that I feel connects with me for a deeper and more personal reason.
This is one of those stories that we all have. We all have a handful of films that we saw at the right time. Whether it be because of coincidental similarities or the moment itself, we connect with a film and throw ourselves over to it; invested in the plot regardless of the critiques of its bad structure or contradictory message. It's the type that if you were to explain to someone why you liked it, you mostly would say "It's personal" after becoming tongue twisted with other excuses. While I cannot claim to love Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close or even care that it is the lowest rated Best Picture nominee on Rotten Tomatoes of that year, I keep it on a certain shelf because to some extent, I can relate.
I have never been to New York. I have never lost my parents to a major tragedy. There isn't much that connects with me in that way. Yet the part that connects with me the most is the youth and insecurity of living in a world fretted with terror. I remember how I learned about The Twin Towers attack for the first time: waking up for school and being rushed into the living room. I couldn't even comprehend the imagery before me. Why were the building's destroyed? Why were people jumping to their inevitable deaths? I was too young to fully understand it, growing more upset that around the clock coverage was taking away from my beloved cartoons. I remember once saying "We have to move on" to my mother not for the reasons that Mayor Giuliani would claim, but because of how much it bothered me.
I was 12 on that day. I had recently started at a new school, merely weeks into the experience. Orientation Night was cancelled because of 9/11. I didn't have any longtime friendship to fall back on to comprehend the moment with. All I had were other students, clinging together in their own uncertainty as I still tried to get them to remember my name. I would persevere, but the immediate month following 9/11 wasn't the most reassuring. I was alone, mostly gathering details from teachers and relatives during their peak interest in political talk radio. I remember my life during this time more as sitting in trucks hearing the world develop around me, not understanding the gravitas that would leave others perturbed. I was a child; apolitical, trying to start my formative years after transferring schools due to bad experiences.
So when I watch the 9/11 cinema oeuvre, there was always a certain disconnect for me. Beyond the controversy that caused the making of these films to be taboo, I never really saw myself in them. I saw the heroes that shifted the world through their influence. These were people that were several times older than me. I had no say in the matter. All I could do was try to make friends. Even if some of these films had the family lives attached, I never got the sense that we should care about the children. They were simply there to boost the parents' ego. I know that this likely isn't true of all 9/11 cinema, but the immediately accessible ones are indicative of events more than people. United 93 focused on the plane hijackings. World Trade Center was about the heroes on the ground. Where was I?
It may be selfish to think, considering that I have been a lifelong California resident. Our story is relatively insignificant compared to New York on 9/11. We could rush out to help, but the obstacles were too big by that point. All I could really do is observe from a far; read newspapers and listen to radios. I didn't have the benefit of cable, so The Daily Show had yet to enter my consciousness. I had nothing really but this helpless desire to understand what was going on. As a result, all I could really do was live my life and cope with the understanding that this was the world. I was observing from behind a glass as the world shifted and my memory continually fails to recall the years prior. To say the least, I can't recall too much of life beforehand. All I had really was entertainment to give me context clues of where I was at any given time.
I am sure that my story isn't unique, especially since there's a lot of other 12-year-olds scattered across the globe that were conscious on that day. Yet I haven't really been privy to those stories, largely because they don't sell papers. That is why, 10 years from that date, I became overwhelmed when I saw Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I watched it initially to cross it off my Best Picture bingo card. The trailers with that U2 song looked ridiculous. Yet, I watched as I became overwhelmed with the story. Not having read Jonathan Safran Foer's original book, I had no context for what was to follow. Considering that I have had a lifelong fear of abandonment, this film's sappiness didn't bother me. Nothing really did. The only thing that has is potentially revisiting it and having that emotional response become shattered, especially since being the sole proprietor of an opinion occasionally is intimidating.
I will admit that Tom Horn is not the prodigy actor to make this a masterpiece. Maybe in hindsight, he is a little too nagging. Yet as the main child character, it was one of those feelings that I had been searching for most of my life in cinema. I wanted to connect over what Horn's character Oskar called "The Worst Day," largely because of his father's (Tom Hanks) death. Even if that journey with mute neighbor Thomas (Max von Sydow) mostly served as ventilation and catharsis to complete a previously established journey, I could understand the frustration. Maybe he was as flawed as his parents, possibly even more obnoxious. Yet I lazily can ignore that because I'm sure I was just as lost in the world, unsure of what was happening around me.
There were a handful of scenes that specifically overwhelmed me the most. The one that I remembered best came when Oskar confronted in his mother (Sandra Bullock) about his father's death. He was right. It didn't make sense. Unless the child suffered major trauma in the years prior, the tragedy created an insecure worldview. I think the scene in particular resonated with me because, in my head, I was thinking that from my west coast home. Why was the world so cruel? Why had it changed everything about our lives? The pin on the scene is when mother refutes the statement with the same argument. Even if it's a stock scene of two characters yelling their insecurities, it spoke to me as a cry that no matter how old you get, the situation still doesn't make sense. Even if Bullock is still significantly older than me, I can now see from her perspective as well, especially as events like Hurricane Katrina and the death of Alison Parker continue to force me to comprehend more rapidly than my brain is willing to admit.
To an extent, my "loss" is not that of a Tom Hanks-like mentor figure. It was more the impending loneliness that I felt in that time immediately following. I couldn't recall the Bill Clinton administration, how was I going to know what was right and wrong? It was hard, and I still cannot entirely piece together my autobiography from that time. That is likely why the other scene that impacted me involved Oskar and his tape recorder, playing back his father's final words before his death - trying to find deeper clues in the bare statements. A part of me clings to those jarring moments, trying to understand why the shift needed to happen. Part of me loathes thinking about my life if it was undocumented. How much would be lost. How much would I forget, not being able to ponder significant moments more closely.
So if you hate Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I don't blame you. Daldry is by nature a sentimental director. I'm sure there's a large conglomerate my age that don't feel as strongly about it as I do. Yes, I notice that the film isn't likely a masterpiece worthy of Best Picture recognition. However, I do think that it still can be important to me because, as I stated before, it's personal. I've always longed to find more cinema that is geared towards the undocumented stories of children who were as confused as I was. Those kids who couldn't see politics because their world was still developing. Maybe in time, I will revisit it and have affirmation either way. For now, I hold it as my own nostalgic ball for an allegorical period in my life with nothing made sense and all I could do was live my life, hoping that something good would come from it.