Never forgot: 9 entertainers who were changed by 9/11

Never forgot: 9 entertainers who were changed by 9/11

1. Dennis Miller
More closely linked to post-9/11 right-wing conversion than Tony Curtis was to Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones, Dennis Miller used to deploy his quippy, arcane references to the sort of leftist, irony-drenched intellectuals that would most appreciate them. (More so than a Monday Night Football audience, anyway.) And while Miller insisted, even in interviews dating back to the mid-’90s, that his perception as a liberal smartass masked the fact that he was a "conservative libertarian," it was still a jarring shift when he emerged after 9/11 as the radical right’s personal court jester. “9/11 changed me. I’m shocked that it didn’t change the whole country, frankly,” he told the Associated Press, just before the premiere of his 2004 talk show on CNBC. But who could have predicted a change like Miller’s, who went from getting off on a rant here about stupidity across the political spectrum to shrugging off George W. Bush in that same 2004 interview, “I like him. I’m going to give him a pass. I take care of my friends”? While Miller has remained more liberal on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, and repudiates all attempts to classify him as Republican (despite his endorsement of their candidates and causes), his self-proclaimed “ascension to the right” means Miller is now preaching almost solely to the right wing’s choir, peppering O’Reilly Factor talking points with movie allusions, and spinning his hyper-literate soliloquies for talk radio. It’s the greatest match between performer and audience since Rupert Pupkin met his mom’s basement.

2 and 3. Ed Asner and Martin Sheen
Actors Ed Asner and Martin Sheen have long shared a passion for being outspoken about their liberal political views. Asner, a proud member of the Democratic Socialists Of America and the Campaign For Peace And Democracy, was openly critical of U.S. military interventionism in Central America, to the point where (Asner claims) it caused CBS to cancel Lou Grant. Sheen has been outspoken on a number of pacifist and environmentalist causes, appearing at rallies for everything from protesting the Iraq War to standing up for exploited foreign workers in Ireland’s mushroom farms. But in the wake of 9/11, both found a common fringe cause by aligning themselves with Actors And Artists For 911 Truth, an organization of entertainers calling for an official investigation into what it believes was a government conspiracy designed to institute a new era of authoritarianism. Along with recently protesting one of those perceived lies by lobbying for a boycott of Zero Dark Thirty, Asner and Sheen—along with fellow AA911 members like Woody Harrelson—have made plans to produce and star in a movie that will dramatize the imaginary investigation into 9/11 they’ve been seeking. Sheen seems slightly more hesitant about it than Asner, who’s already spent much of the past decade taping videos and narrating documentaries related to the cause. But whether or not that movie ever gets made, both Asner and Sheen have already become Hollywood’s most famous “truthers.”

4. Oliver Stone 
When it was announced that Oliver Stone would be tackling 9/11 a mere five years after the fact, the preemptive protests were swift. Surely the man who had become synonymous with conspiracy theories for JFK would take a similar tack to speculating about the real events behind the tragedy, at a time when Ground Zero was still very much an open wound in New York? As it turned out, all of the handwringing was for nothing: Stone’s World Trade Center was as far from JFK as possible, an entirely apolitical, unceasingly sentimental tribute to the lives lost that day, whose main characters are symbolically buried deep in the rubble—far removed from anything that might have been taking place higher up. Stone argued defensively around the film’s release that “conspiracy-mongering on 9/11 is a waste of time,” saying it was more important to look at the “far greater conspiracy” surrounding its aftermath and the actions of Bush’s “neo-cabal” as it took America to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

And yet, despite Stone’s suggestion that he’d do just that by adapting the CIA exposé Jawbreaker, his next film was actually W. A surprisingly empathetic, pointedly humanizing look at a man Stone has off-screen implied should be held accountable for war crimes, the movie ends just as the “real” story—the one that Stone has claimed so desperately needs to be told—is beginning. While Stone has remained a provocateur in interviews and through his documentaries about Latin America and Israel, that strange reluctance to reenter the U.S. political fray even colored his recent Showtime series The Untold History Of The United States, which—like his films, however well crafted—similarly promised revelations it never actually delivered. Meanwhile, those longing for the incendiary Oliver Stone of old have had to content themselves with a pale imitation Wall Street sequel. 

5. Jon Voight
Like so many young actors who came of age in the 1960s, Jon Voight was a liberal, McGovernick activist who protested the Vietnam War and regularly turned up alongside the likes of Jane Fonda in support of leftist and anti-war causes. His personal and political life echoed the countercultural roles he took on in films like The Revolutionary and Coming Home. These days he more closely resembles the George Washington role he took on in David Zucker’s right-wing spoof, An American Carol: draped in the guise of the Founding Fathers, bloviating a (Voight-penned) speech blaming those same sorts of leftist criticisms for 9/11. The World Trade Center attacks prompted Voight not only to disavow the politics of his youth, they sparked a nigh-religious conversion in which Voight came to regard Rudy Giuliani as an angel sent by God. In the years since, Voight has become such a devout member of the conservative faith that he’s arguably as famous for his preaching against President Obama—whom Voight has called a Marxist, media-controlling, “false prophet” out to deify himself and install a new socialist regime—as he is for his films (or his daughter).

6. Ron Silver
The late actor Ron Silver was always something of a foreign-policy geek, and he showed a streak of solidarity with the neocons, at least on the subject of Israel, when he co-founded One Jerusalem, a group created in 2000 in opposition to the Oslo Peace Agreement. But it was only after the 2001 attacks that Silver publicly declared he was dropping his Democratic Party affiliation, because he felt that the party was soft on terrorism. He subsequently campaigned for President Bush’s reelection, spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention—where he declared, “I’m a 9/11 Republican”—and accompanied Bush to Jerusalem for Israel’s 60th anniversary celebration. Silver also served as narrator of Fahrenhype 9/11, a 2004 documentary attacking Michael Moore’s anti-Bush doc Fahrenheit 9/11, hosted a talk radio show, and contributed a blog to Pajamas Media (a conservative website co-founded by Roger L. Simon, who, before his own post-9/11 political conversion, had worked on the screenplay for one of Silver’s biggest movies, Enemies: A Love Story). Silver died in 2009—four months after voting for Barack Obama because, as he said, he couldn’t stomach John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. During this time he’d largely put his acting career on the back burner, though he did take one role that served as an “art imitates life” commentary on his political activism: Bruno Gianelli, the genius campaign advisor on The West Wing who switches his alliance from liberal dream date of President Bartlett to Republican senator Arnold Vinick.

7. Dan Simmons
Hugo-winning author Dan Simmons was at the top of his field in the early 2000s. His Hyperion Cantos were widely regarded as being among the greatest science-fiction novels of all time; the rare books that managed to have an epic, wildly creative introduction matched by a satisfying and ambitious conclusion—books that also included, as one of the heroes, the complex Palestinian war hero Fedmahn Kassad. Simmons’ much-anticipated next duology, Ilium/Olympos, seemed to fit in the same vein. Ilium fit the model perfectly: It had a bizarre, far-future, post-apocalyptic Earth; sentient, poetry-loving robots mining the moons of the outer solar system; transhumans re-enacting the Iliad of the title; and strong doses of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But when it came time for Simmons to give explanations for Ilium's mysteries in its second half, Olympos, he settled on kneejerk post-9/11 Islamophobia. Turns out Earth had been ruined by a “New Caliphate,” and the out-of-nowhere climax of the novel involves the disarming of a jihadist, planet-destroying weapon. This was not an accident or a random storytelling device. In 2006, Simmons posted a bizarre fantasy of a world taken over by Sharia Law—the result of liberals being listened to in the War On Terror—and his 2009 novel Flashback was plagued by that same paranoia. He’s still capable of writing great novels when he’s not distracted by evil Muslim hordes, but Simmons’ anti-Islam stance is now as much a part of his reputation as his literary successes.

8. Bill Maher
In the 1990s, as host of Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central and then ABC, Bill Maher could be funny and relatively well informed, but he never seemed deeply invested in any of the issues he was talking about. Kicking around a bunch of random topics with an even more random bunch of celebrities was just his job. Then, a week after September 11, 2001, Maher set off a firestorm by saying President Bush had been wrong to characterize the terrorists who had flown the airplanes that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as “cowards,” adding, “We have been the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away, that’s cowardly.” Never mind that Maher had been agreeing with one of his conservative guests, Dinesh D’Souza; White House press secretary Ari Fleischer publicly condemned Maher, and advertisers abandoned the show in droves, leading to its cancellation the next spring. Maher’s first instinct was to apologize, try to explain what he’d “really” meant, and generally seem ready to say whatever it took to remain on the air. But when that didn’t work, his anger at being made a punching bag was palpable. When he returned to TV as host of the more sophisticated and politically charged Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO—which debuted in February 2003, just in time for the start of the Iraq War—his humor had gained bite and conviction (as well as a fresh crop of enemies, in the form of 9/11 Truthers), and Maher was calling himself a “9/11 liberal,” differentiating himself from more mainstream liberals with his belief that Islam is dangerous. 

9. Frank Miller
Frank Miller, one of the founding fathers of the “grim and gritty” comics revolution in the early 1980s, was long known for his explorations of the dark side of superheroism, as well as for bringing a decidedly noir influence to Daredevil’s New York, Batman’s Gotham and his own Sin City. And his epic 300 certainly has great admiration for the loyal band of Spartan warriors standing up to invading Persian warriors, who are characterized somewhat monstrously. But the 9/11 attacks (which occurred while Miller was living in Manhattan and writing The Dark Knight Strikes Again) shifted Miller into a new, shockingly polemical gear. In 2006, he announced a bonkers-sounding new book called Holy Terror, Batman!that would see the Caped Crusader defending Gotham from a terrorist attack and “kicking Al-Qaeda’s ass.” Miller compared it to the comic book propaganda of the 1940s that saw Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw, but his single-minded hatred of the perceived enemy, entirely free of nuance, was surprising, even in the charged world of the War On Terror. 

“For the first time in my life I know how it feels to face an existential menace. They want us to die. All of a sudden I realize what my parents were talking about all those years,” he told NPR in an interview on the anniversary of the attacks. The project was finally released in 2011, sans Batman or the titular hero, as Holy Terror. Reviewers called it the anti-Islamic screed Miller had promised—or worse, “something a seventh-grader might write after 9/11”—and it largely sank without a trace. But Miller now proudly occupies the us-or-them ground he’s staked out, recently drawing attention for a rant about Occupy Wall Street protesters being “louts, thieves, and rapists”—“pond scum” who are unaware of America’s war “against a ruthless enemy.” Guess who that enemy might be?

Filed Under: Film

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