Bright Lights Film Journal

Critical Distance: What Knowing Knows About 9/11

“Where Cloverfield provocatively blurs the line between being ‘about’ 9/11 and being (mere) entertainment, Knowing lands squarely in the latter camp.”

Knowing (2009) demands of us many things – for example, that we forgive another forgettable Nicholas Cage performance, and that we believe it possible to find on-street parking in lower Manhattan in about thirty seconds. Beyond these indulgences, though, the film asks its viewers for something more challenging: that we to begin to see the 9/11 attacks with critical or emotional distance, as a moment in history that has happened, rather than as the kind of personal memory that affects us in an ongoing way.

In the film’s opening, a precociously haunted grade-schooler scrawls a long string of numbers on a piece of paper. She’s been tasked with drawing her vision of the future for a time capsule – it is 1959 – but instead, obeying the whispers in her mind, she scrawls number after number. Fifty years later, the paper falls into the hands of beleaguered astrophysicist John Koestler (Cage), who determines that the numbers on it identify all the catastrophic events that have taken place in the interim – dates, locations, and body counts. Of course, the paper also predicts three further catastrophes in the near future, and Dr. Koestler risks more than etiquette would require to save the next batch of human lives that would otherwise be lost.

Knowing unveils this paper-thin premise in a scene in which Koestler, drunk and mourning his departed wife, notices the sequence “9112001” on the piece of paper, highlighted by the stain left by his whiskey on the rocks. Owing to his mental state, it takes the MIT professor a few tries to parse the string of numbers into a date – into the date of the last fifty years, really.

Once he does, his whiskeylogged left brain begins to fire on all cylinders. He consults the Internet to learn that the next four numbers in the sequence, “2996,” represent the 9/11 death toll. He copies all the numbers on the paper to a whiteboard and circles “9112001” in blue and “2996” in red with uncharacteristic sobriety. He repeats the process for each stretch of numbers he can make into a date. (It will take another day and a second member of the MIT faculty to identify the remaining numbers on the sheet as GPS coordinates; academics love a committee.)

After more rapid-fire googling and maniacal color-coding, the sequence climaxes with a big reveal, the whiteboard as a kind of monument to massive loss of human life, a dry-erase Vietnam Wall for the last fifty years of disaster. 9/11 may be a big one, the film hints, but it’s just one, of a great many.

Cage’s typically quirky performance actually sets us up to get the message in advance of the whiteboard money-shot. When Koestler first finds the 9/11 casualty figure online, he reads the tagline on a memorial website aloud, repeating the number: “In memory of the two-thousand nine-hundred and ninety-six lives that were lost that day. Two-thousand nine-hundred and ninety-six.”

Cage delivers the line with all the gusto of a grade-schooler reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. His sing-song tone departs not only from the cliché-ridden melodrama we’re accustomed to hearing every September on the news, but also from the film’s laborious efforts to communicate to us that Koestler faces some ceaseless emotional burden. He is drunk, sure, but also a generally serious guy. How drunk would he have to get to shrug off 3,000 human lives?

This odd moment calls attention to itself through its out-of-place levity about the film’s most solemn content. It’s as though Koestler has moved on, in the therapeutic sense, but moved much too far. In our developing cultural relationship to 9/11, we might hope to stop short of Koestler’s indifference. Someday, though, we will stop speaking in stock phrases and start using the language of detachment with which most of us now speak about Pearl Harbor and Vietnam, the language of numbers, factors, causes. With a friendly poke in the ribs from Uncle Nick Cage, Knowing suggests that it might be time to start practicing.

As the story goes, acceptance is both the final stage in grief and the first in recovery. Knowing confronts any denial we might have with vivid portrayals of disaster that pointedly recall the events of 9/11. The film eases us in by first showing the horror of a plane crash in a field, recalling one of the aspects of 9/11 we tend to think on less, the crash of flight 93 in Pennsylvania. Still, the grim vigor with which the scene is imagined lends it an unexpected punch. Beyond the scenery, though, Koestler has shown up at the site to prove that the paper is legit, and the desperation in Cage’s performance signals that Koestler feels what so many of us did on 9/11 and in the days following: a lingering sense that we should have been able to prevent the tragedy.

Later, the film delivers a better-targeted blow. After a subway attack in lower Manhattan, victims and firemen stagger through white smoke, covered in the ghostly dust that blanketed the area in 2001. Though we’re barely halfway through the film, we sense that this moment may be the most poignant (and it is). Tight shots filled only with smoke and empty faces evoke a stillness unusual both for the film and for its genres – disaster, horror, thriller. Not even music taints the moment; the soundtrack registers only a hollow breeze and the muffled chatter of the rescue personnel.

Knowing is not the first movie to appropriate the imagery of 9/11. Notwithstanding Cloverfield (2008) and a handful of Family Guy jokes, though, the rest are explicit fictionalizations of the events of that day (like 2006’s ambitious duo United 93 and World Trade Center), rather than critical explorations of the material. On the other hand, where Cloverfield provocatively blurs the line between being “about” 9/11 and being (mere) entertainment, Knowing lands squarely in the latter camp. The film takes on 9/11 because it has to; the premise that a piece of paper has predicted every disaster of the last half-century makes omitting 9/11 impossible.

Still, the film surpasses any plot-driven obligation to include 9/11, using the imagery of the attacks to pose serious questions to a viewership unready to answer them: How long does it take for a culture to recover from such great trauma? How long before we set aside the “nation united in grief” talk that keeps us from moving on? And is it too soon for a movie to ask us to try?