Whereas other, lesser American tragedies have been expectedly dealt with and also exploited in the public forum of film and television, the experience of 9/11 may still be too much of a vulnerable topic to address, a still-open wound that resists glib or melodramatic treatments. Released a decade after what the film’s young protagonist refers to as “the worst day,” Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — director Stephen Daldry’s ambitious but fumbling film adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel — comes close to bringing about some degree of collective closure to this unfathomably dark day in America and the history of the human tragicomedy.
But, in some way, its apparent flaws and irritating gusts of superficial gimmickry seem all the more suspicious given the gravity of the subject, the same sort of problem faced by Schindler’s List. Somehow, Hollywood’s bag of tricks and cozy dramatic resolutions feel insulting in the face of truly horrific moments in human history. We’re led into the large, complex issue of 9/11 through the incredibly close-up dramatic prism of the tale of one precious, highly verbal, and possibly Asperger-afflicted son (Thomas Horn) of a World Trade Center victim (Tom Hanks). In the periphery of his effort to find the meaning of a certain key — an intentionally unsubtle metaphor — are his struggling mother (Sandra Bullock) and an older man (Max von Sydow) who aids in the young man’s project of discovery, and whose muteness hides its own backstory of festering terror-induced pain.
In a real way, Safran Foer’s novel resembles his earlier Everything Is Illuminated, in that a family member is on a quest to discover unresolved mysteries in his familial past, and the interlacing of chronologies and parallel characters’ stories make for a natural crossover to the language of cinema. Brit director Daldry, whose previous films The Hours and The Reader similarly take on serious themes with a style oscillating between artistic flair and pretentiousness, doesn’t seem to keep his mind or focus on the delicate work at hand here. There are fine moments all along the way, including a plot scheme that brings a large group of New Yorkers into close and empathetic contact, but the sentimentality factor ultimately reminds us that it’s only a movie, sprinkled with Hollywood fairy dust instead of deeper, darker truths.