Two recent movies try to resurrect our national spirit: Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke. The drama and documentary both witness tragedy through the eyes of people hoping for rescue and through them the audience is healed.
In World Trade Center, Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena play two Port Authority policemen trapped under a mountain of rubble. The men are metaphors for the resilient American Spirit. They lie pinned under debris and talk in the dark. Near death, the men see with clarity the small moments of family that gave life meaning. In these scenes domestic life becomes an Eden and they refuse the comfort of sleep and death to come home.
The audience is supposed to experience catharsis from the terror through their survival. When they are pulled out of the rubble each wears a mask of ash as many of us did after Sept. 11. It was a mask that made us temporarily white, uniting us.
Opposing this is Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke. The patriotic unity of Sept. 11 is absent. The white mask of ash is washed off by the flood. We see how color and class divide us. The survivors tell of being abandoned. No one is a metaphor for salvation; instead, each is a real person hoping for it. If in World Trade Center, the memory of home kept men alive, in Lee’s film it becomes a source of pain as an exposed ruin. The families of New Orleans can visit but cannot rebuild and so the death of their city is forever final.
Eventually the interviewees turn to anger that builds to hand-shaking rage. It is those hands that may shake our complacency. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” He meant that none of us will ever know a lasting peace until we all come home.