Whenever the 9/11 terrorist attacks show up one way or another in film you know it will be gut wrenching. Which is appropriate, 9/11 was a tragedy after all that affected thousands of people. But much like The Holocaust it can be used as a manipulation tool, designed to milk every last tear from the audience. The movie may be touching, yes, but by the same token you feel cheated.
Stephan Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” deals with 9/11 but not as much as you’d think it would. I suppose that’s a good thing but at the same time Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth (who adapted it from the book by Jonathon Safron Foer) clearly want you to know that it’s there. In an office complex looking out a window we see the twin towers in a blaze. Or later on along a sidewalk people have put up pictures of missing people and flowers in an alter. As near as I can tell the only purpose 9/11 serves to the story is to add emotional weight to the death of one of the main characters. That’s all well and good but it doesn’t feel entirely necessary to the central narrative.
The film revolves around Oskar (Thomas Horn), a nine-year-old boy with Asperger’s. He doesn’t really like to be around people, so he doesn’t go to school often, or when he does he’s not paying much attention. What he really likes is to do stuff with his father Thomas (Tom Hanks), a rather lively jewelry shop owner. They do what Thomas calls Reconnaissance missions. He gives Oskar clues and makes him go out and find stuff all around NY City. They’re games but they also serve as daily lessons for Oskar, challenging him to go out of his comfort zone and talk to strangers.
However, it all comes crashing down (literally) on that tragic day. Thomas is killed in one of the towers. This affects Oskar deeply but it doesn’t stop him from going on one last Reconnaissance mission. He finds a key within a vase among Thomas’s things, which he thinks is a clue from Thomas.
The fact of the matter with Oskar is that he has Asperger’s. If you can’t get behind that then you’re not going to enjoy the movie, as Oskar isn’t exactly likable. He keeps a distance from most everyone (including the audience), even from his kind-hearted mom Linda (Sandra Bullock), and he can be pretty mean. You may get a little annoyed with him at first but as the movie progresses you understand that he has this condition he can’t do anything about and you learn to accept him. For a youngster Horn gives a perfectly appropriate portrayal of a kid who has Asperger’s, saying each word precisely and sometimes nastily and it holds up for the entire film. Oskar isn’t a “good little boy” and that gives him more identity, more dimension.
I wish I could say the same about his father. Although I have no complaints with Hanks’ humble performance, the character is one sided. He’s made out to be the world’s greatest dad and that’s all we see of him. There’s never once a scene where he gets mad at Oskar or annoyed, nor are there any scenes in which we see quarrels between him and Linda, which I think there would be considering Oskar has Asperger’s. You only see one side of him--it’s a good side no doubt--but only one side.
In no time, Oskar is off on his journey, taking him all over the city, up town to down town, where he runs into a number of people who he thinks might know his dad. One is Abby Black (Viola Davis), a woman who is going through her own issues. Eventually, Oskar meets up with his mysterious grandfather (Max Von Sydow, in a marvelously endearing, wordless performance) and soon both of them are trying to solve the puzzle. The great thing about this narrative is that it doesn’t allow for an overflow of melodrama. There aren’t endless scenes of Oskar crying and grieving over Thomas because he’s too busy doing his mission. It keeps the picture moving along.
But, as to be expected there is much sadness and melodrama to be had. Plenty of perfectly timed tears roll down people’s cheeks (probably in unison with the audience’s). There’s a scene at the end where Oskar writes a letter to each of the people he comes into contact with that’s a little much but then there are a couple underplayed moments that almost drove me to tears. Both involve the answering machine messages that Thomas left the day he died, going from good to bad, to worse.
All of this brings me back to 9/11. Would “Extremely Loud” be any different without that terrible tragedy as a backdrop? Would those moments I mentioned in the previous paragraph be less effective if Thomas had died some other way? I don’t think so. The characters are strong for the most part and the story stands on its own. The use of 9/11 feels like an extra (but superfluous) way to extract tears from the audience.