If you want to understand how a useless grab bag of tropes before a backdrop of crumbling Twin Towers got made, look no further than 9/11 director Martin Guigui’s description as to why infamous 9/11 truther Charlie Sheen decided to star in the movie. To The Hollywood Reporter, Guigui said:
“He made it clear to me that there’s a time for everything and that presently his thoughts and feelings about 9/11 are that it was a horrible tragedy,” says Guigui, when asked if he had apprehension casting Sheen, knowing his comments on the project. “More than anything he wanted to make the movie because he thought this was a legacy piece, something that he would love to be remembered by.”
Sheen corroborated where his head is at in his own interview with THR:
“I have to have faith that I will do something again someday where they will love me. But if not, it is really more of a reflection of who they are. It has nothing to [do] with me.”
Pure ego. It’s pure ego that got Sheen to enter that set elevator with four other actors, and it’s pure ego that kept him there for the two-week shoot, his character making small talk and pseudo-philosophizing about class and race until the smoke starts to pour in and the cables start to snap and the movie plummets to climax, setting its pulse to the events of a worldwide tragedy. Relying on Today show footage of the planes hitting the buildings, the smoke billowing out, and the inevitable collapse of the South Tower, 9/11 teaches you nothing you didn’t already know—other than just how craven human beings can be in their willingness to exploit a large-scale terrorist attack for profit and accolades. It feels like Guigui and company thought they were making Oscar bait, but their results have the intellectual depth of chum.
If you saw the trailer that was released in July, you already have the gist of 9/11—five people enter a North Tower elevator and within seconds the first plane hits. They are billionaire Jeffrey Cage (Sheen), his estranged wife Eve (Gina Gershon, whose perma-pout is about the most realistic thing here given that she’s in the middle of a tragedy), bike messenger Michael (Wood Harris), sugar baby Tina (Olga Fonda), and World Trade Center janitor Eddie (Luis Guzmán). We’re given less than 10 minutes of back story on each (it’s Michael’s daughter’s birthday, Eve and Jeffrey are about to sign their divorce papers, Eddie likes the Yankees, Tina owns a pug) before the first plane hits and less than 10 minutes after, they’re already guessing that the reason their elevator has stopped is because of a terrorist attack. Smart crew.
Then they get their confirmation via elevator monitor Metzie (Whoopi Goldberg in a wig so ill-fitting it’s actually just a hat): “Baby, you’re not gonna believe this: Some fool hit the tower with like a little propeller plane or something!” The sideways, tsking manner in which Goldberg regards all of the day’s events is generally something in the realm of: “Western Civilization, you in danger, girl.”
Before their characters attempt various ways to escape the elevator, screenwriters Guigui and Steven James Golebiowski have their multicultural gang engaged in some conversations that are boring at best and infuriating at worst. Olga openly hopes that her sugar daddy, whom she feels owned by, has already died in the attack. I guess there’s a bright side to every situation? Michael, who’s black, tells the story of a recent accident he got in with a taxi whose driver he assumes was Pakistani— though after being interrogated by his fellow captives, it turns out this is just an assumption and many express some sort of exasperation before changing the subject. So... don’t assume... that ever. Got that, everyone? When Michael suggests that whiteness helped Jeffrey become the billionaire that he is—a fair assumption since what Jeffrey does, besides working on Wall Street (get it?), is never quite spelled out—Eve delivers an impassioned, frankly flabbergasting speech that seems intended to take down the concept of attributing success to privilege:
You know, for your information, this guy doesn’t come from money. This guy worked in a factory. His mom died when he was 12. He went to a public school. And when he barely graduated, he went to work alongside his father and all of his brothers. And that was it. That was decided. That’s as far as this guy was gonna go. But you know what he did? He refused to accept that story because he imagined something bigger for himself. So at 18 years old with $60 in his pocket, he hopped on a bus to New York City. And that’s where (Jeffrey interjects here: “I met you.”)—Yes, that’s where you met me. So Michael, you can be mad at everything you don’t have or envious of people who have way more than they need, but you have no idea what people go through to get where they are.
Ladies and gentlemen, Gina Gershon, with the final word on white privilege.
The acting is, for the most part, surprisingly not awful but there, too, 9/11 fails. Instead of turning out some so-bad-it’s-good trash that creates a delicious internal conflict to sink your teeth into—Which is worse: the movie for being so reckless with 9/11 or me for effectively laughing at this funhouse mirror of 9/11?—it kind of just sits there, like something resigned to die and be forgotten. Even the heightened emotions feel mostly forgivable (no amount of onscreen melodrama could possibly convey the tragedy of 9/11), though the final scene (I assume you’re not going to see this and so I’m not spoiling anything) of a smartly dressed Gina Gershon stumbling around the dusty, rapidly decaying lobby of the WTC after being the sole inhabitant to escape the elevator before it plunged seems calculated to make lovers of the extreme cackle. And then, when she flags down a fireman and tells him four people are still stuck in an elevator (that she magically knows is on the lobby level) and he pries open the doors of one containing someone she doesn’t know, she screeches, “It’s the wrong elevator!!!” That I did laugh at. You’d think that Gershon’s character would be the first one to realize that all lives matter, after that privilege speech.
After fading to black on the image of a firefighter’s hand from above wrapped around that of the final person who’s still stuck in the elevator (I won’t reveal who it is, but you can guess, oh fine, it’s Charlie Sheen), a message appears onscreen, dedicating this movie to the first responders and victims of the terrorist attacks. Yeah right. “Never forget,” it concludes. I won’t, 9/11, but you’ve done your damnedest to make me want to.