You know, I had been wondering for a while when it would become possible to make a film involving 9/11 that wouldn’t be considered “exploiting a tragedy.” The overwhelmingly negative response to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (53% disapproval rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes with plenty of comments outright accusing it of “exploiting a tragedy”), a film that was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, made it clear to me that late-2011/early-2012 is not that time.
A film’s being “exploitative” is a largely subjective determination, and actually a bit of a misnomer. In essence, every film intended for a mass market audience is exploitative, because the goal is to make as much money by getting as many people as possible to buy tickets for it, and you do that by appealing to what you think the audience wants. Quite a few films have additional goals (conveying a didactic message, or being recognized as artistically brilliant), but those goals are not only secondary to reaching a wide audience, they are actually entirely dependent upon doing so. When we say a film is “exploitative,” we actually mean that it is nearly entirely dependent upon subject matter and otherwise largely without merit.
Defining Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in these terms is, frankly, indicative of gross intellectual laziness. That might be the easiest review to write without putting any actual thought into analyzing the film, but the film defies this categorization with any but the most cursory of examinations. Yes: September 11, 2001 clearly had a dramatic impact on the narrator’s life. But that’s where most of these reviews stopped. I’m sorry: just because a film has 9/11 in it doesn’t mean it’s exploitative. So we have to ask some questions. Did the film heavily feature 9/11-related imagery in its marketing? (No.) Was the film primarily “about” 9/11? (No.) Did the film have very little, if anything, else to say? (No.) Were the artistic elements of the film (acting, directing, writing) amateur-quality? (Absolutely not.)
Most damning of all for the “exploitation” argument: did they release the film on the ten year anniversary of September 11, 2001, which was absolutely a possibility with the film releasing in late 2011? No, they didn’t. The film received a limited release in December 2011 and a wide release in January 2012.
If your goal is to spend as little money and then make as much money as possible, you don’t cast Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. And you definitely don’t invest three months in a nationwide search for the best child actor you can find. The result of that search was an absolute revelation. Thomas Horn, with no previous acting experience, delivered a stunning performance that absolutely anchored the film. It’s rather clear that Oskar is being depicted as being somewhere on the autism spectrum. Since seeing the film, I’ve learned that the author had never thought of the character that way, but was in no way adversarial to such a characterization.
The thing is, like 9/11, this also isn’t a film “about” the autism spectrum. Horn’s performance is incredible, but the audience quickly learns to just accept that part of his character, and move on. And that is absolutely what a lot of “issue” movies completely miss. The best way to get an audience to start relating to characters that aren’t like them (this also applies to things like race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion) isn’t to make films about that “issue.” It’s to bring those sorts of characters into every genre. No one is accusing Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close of “exploiting” the fact that its main character is somewhere on the autism spectrum, are they?
My boyfriend (with whom I was watching the film) made the comment that Horn “is either actually somewhere on the autism spectrum, or is just a really good actor.” I wholeheartedly agreed (with the corollary that it could be both), and it turned out to be the latter. And that’s just amazing. So you take a child who’s never acted before in his life, give him a character who has a condition he needs to learn to relate to, and he pulls it off brilliantly? Incredible.
The heart of this film is really the relationship between Oskar and his parents (Hanks, Bullock.) Oksar is an extremely precocious child, and in the film’s flashbacks we see a father who absolutely knew how to nurture him. His relationship with his mother is much more complicated. The evolution of their relationship plays into much of the film’s conflict and leads to one of the most satisfying emotional reversals I’ve ever seen in a film.
The scenes involving 9/11 were indeed heart-wrenching… would you want them not to be? But they’re not heart-wrenching merely because of their subject. They’re heart-wrenching because of how brilliantly they’re written. They’re heart-wrenching because of the way Hanks’ voice on the answering machine sounds like he’s just barely controlling his desperation. They’re heart-wrenching because Horn’s nonverbal acting is so visceral.
This is not a simple film, this is not a lazy film, and it does not deserve to be dismissed by people who can’t find anything interesting to say about it. I will not so easily dismiss the views of those who, for substantive reasons, disagree with me about the film’s merit, but I will without hesitation reject those that regurgitate this “exploitation” nonsense.