I believe we have yet to see the best of or the end of what could be called 9/11 art. The passing of time creates the distance necessary for some artists to reflect creatively on this tragic event. This is not to say that good 9/11 art does not already exist. Certainly, visual artists, whether in painting or sculpture, have already expressed their anger, grief, sorrow, and even hope through the creative process. Filmmakers have begun to tackle this momentous day as well. Some address it directly in films like United 93, Flight 93, or World Trade Center. However, other filmmakers take a more indirect approach with stories located in New York where the memory of the terrorist attack lingers like a thick fog in the distance. Rather than focusing specifically on the event, they look at individuals and how they continue to make their way in this world. The latter approach interests me a great deal more, and so, I eagerly awaited the release of Mike Binder’s Reign Over Me.
Reign Over Me tells the story of Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) and Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), two former college roommates and dental school colleagues. They have not seen each other since dental school, and their lives have taken two drastically different paths. Alan is a successful head of a New York dental practice and is married with two children. However, Alan’s successful career and beautiful home cover a troubled marriage and a general emotional malaise. He does not communicate with his occasionally smothering wife, Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) and fails to stand up to his lazy, yet bossy, co-workers (to a point).
Charlie became a successful dentist as well. He too married and had three daughters. Here, their similarities end, for on 9/11, Charlie’s life stopped. His wife, three daughters, and the family pet were on the plane bound from Boston to Los Angeles. Since that day, Charlie has become a recluse, suffering from a terrible case of post-traumatic stress disorder. He shelters himself with movies, video games (specifically Shadow of the Colossus), and his iPod with soundproof headphones. Charlie has willingly or unwillingly forgotten almost everything about his “former” life and anyone or anything connected to it. So it is not surprising that when Alan happens to run into him on the street, it takes a few visits to jog his memory. However, this part of Charlie’s memory comes back quickly as Alan has no connection to Charlie’s wife and daughters, and the two begin to spend increasing amounts of time together playing video games, going out to eat, and watching movies.
We quickly see however that their time together is therapeutic for the both of them. Alan begins to bring Charlie out of his shell, slowly but surely, and Charlie does truly value his friendship. Alan benefits from their time together as well, often to the neglect of his family. Janeane will accuse him of taking advantage of Charlie’s “freedom.” This is not the case; however, it is a potential danger. Charlie empowers Alan to stand up to both his coworkers and his wife.
Aside from a couple of passing comments and two of Charlie’s monologues, the references to 9/11 are limited, relying on the audience’s memory instead. This is both good and bad. It allows the viewer to bring her memories of this tragedy and to work through them with Charlie. On the other hand, her memories of the event could be distracting, leading the viewer to expect something that the film does not deliver. This is not a political film but a personal lamentation, a study of grief and the reality of the healing process that is never complete.
Charlie’s self-medication is a pop-theologian’s dream as he delves into music, video games, and films. Such total surrender to “alternate worlds” can have negative consequences as it isolates him from the rest of the world and relationships that could be potentially life-giving. However, it also keeps his mind off the acute pain that plagues his life. His favorite movies are Mel Brooks comedies that provide humor in his otherwise dreary existence. The music from his iPod drowns out the noises of the city that would further shock his system. However, I find it extremely interesting that producer Jeremey Roush encouraged Binder to include Shadow of the Colossus in this film.
Shadow of the Colossus is one of the most unique, beautiful, and engrossing video games on any platform. The game centers on a post-apocalyptic world in which a young boy must slay thirteen colossi in order to resurrect a sleeping princess. These colossi are as big as skyscrapers, and the player must lead the young boy around on horseback as he searches for these giant beasts and then make him climb up or along them in search of weak spots to bring them down. There can be no doubt that these colossi serve a dual representation: the grief that Charlie must overcome and the World Trade Center towers that collapsed on 9/11. Roush commented on the inclusion of this video game in the film, “You could see where someone who was dealing with 9/11 would be engrossed by a giant that keeps collapsing over and over again.”
Again, this is not a film explicitly about 9/11 but rather dealing with grief from any tragic loss. All of the performances are solid, and Sandler brings the requisite oddness to such a disturbed character. Cheadle strikes the balance of a genuine friend and a troubled husband; however, while Alan’s “trouble in paradise” does add depth to the film, it is at times unexplored and ultimately a weaker part of the story. While the film does not drown in it, popular culture plays a vital, healing role in Reign Over Me, but only when coupled with the healthy, human interaction mentioned previously.
Thankfully the film does not tie everything together in the end or reach some happy, specific conclusion. Charlie does not get a haircut, shave, and go back to work. He does move into a new apartment, and the film hints at a possible new friendship on the horizon. The Lamentations question still lingers, “How long, oh Lord?” Colin Covert notes in his review of the film for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “The film ends with Charlie and Alan at a proverbial crossroads, each better off than before but Binder wisely avoids promising that the characters will live happily ever after—only that it’s possible. That’s enough. That’s plenty.” Reign Over Me does reveal the power of telling our stories, as painful as they may be, as a path to healing and that, after all, our friends may be the best psychiatrists we have.