Film Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

It’s difficult to talk about Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close without mentioning the bad press it’s received. Just take a moment to look at some of the negative blurbs listed for it on Rotten Tomatoes. Lou Lumenick of The New York Post calls in “Oscar-mongering of the most blunt and reprehensible sort,” while Peter Howell, writing for The Toronto Star, refers to it as “9/11 porn.” And then there’s Manohla Dargis’ review for The New York Times, where she calls it “kitsch,” adding that “yes, you may cry, but when tears are milked as they are here, the truer response should be rage.”

Personally, I can’t put myself in the same group as those who were offended by it. The aspects they found so distasteful—whether you’re talking about its narrative structure or emotional score—felt organic to me, not forced. Which has left me wondering: Am I missing something?

I’m not going to lie, I’m a young enough critic that when I see so many respected professionals dismissing a movie I genuinely enjoyed, I become self-conscious. In a way, I picture myself as that shy, nerdy kid at the back of the class who only raises his hand cautiously, if at all. I start to wonder, what am I not seeing? Where did I go wrong? And do I dare stick up for it?

In the end, though, I have to be honest and admit that I just don’t see what everyone is so upset about. In my view, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tells a genuinely moving story, aided by a dazzling score from Alexandre Desplat and fine performances from Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, and newcomer Thomas Horn. If the ending is a tearjerker, I’m not sure what else we should expect. People want to fault director Stephen Daldry for pushing the audience towards feeling something, but wouldn’t it have been another crime entirely if he’d drained the story of emotion completely?

And therein lies the dilemma that Extremely Loud ultimately raises: how do you effectively make a movie about 9/11 without potentially offending anyone? Emotion is inherent to the Hollywood drama, and all storytelling for that matter. Without it, you’re left with an empty shell. But even though we expect artists to structure their stories for maximum impact, and in the case of filmmakers, to bring them to life with images and music, how do the rules change when the subject matter is potentially sensitive? Should we honestly expect directors to forego using the normal tools in their toolbox?

As an example, consider Steven Spielberg’s War Horse for a moment. Like Extremely Loud, some critics have charged War Horse with trying too hard to make the audience feel something, but I’ve yet to hear anyone accuse Spielberg of exploiting World War I in the process. And yet Spielberg’s material, on a purely basic level, isn’t any less tragic than Daldry’s. Both use well-known historical events to tell stories about young characters introduced to the sometimes grim realities of life. What separates them—aside from the absence of a horse in Extremely Loud—is time.

I don’t think it’s a stretch, then, to say Daldry’s film may eventually have its day when we’ll be able to talk about it purely as a story and as a well-made Hollywood drama, and even as a kind of magical-realist fairy tale, which is how it strikes me. For now, though, 9/11 may just be too fresh for some of us to accept it with open arms.

Andrew Welch lives in Denton and is a movie critic for RELEVANT magazine and Art House Dallas.