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Reign Over Me

As you may know, Mike Blinder's Reign Over Me is a movie about a man whose wife and three daughters have perished in one of the planes on 9/11. It is also movie about Manhattan, and about how "Manhattan" and "9/11" are not the same thing.

Reign Over Me, although deeply satisfying, is not a particularly demanding movie, and for the first hour I had the mental leisure to glower a bit that Don Cheadle isn't given top billing. His character, Alan Johnson, is the life of the movie's exposition. In the second hour, however, when Adam Sandler's Charlie Fineman began to open up about his own private catastrophe, I changed my mind: the billing is just. I was so taken with Mr Sandler's performance that I found myself thinking about Oscars. Not because I liked the movie so much, though. If I made a habit of expecting movies that I like a lot to win Oscars, I'd lead a very disappointed life. Reign Over Me is an extraordinarily canny film. It's beautifully pitched to the legions of decent men who are going to see it with their wives and girlfriends and then, in perfect good faith, rack up the sensitivity points afterwards. The metaphysical title that I'd assign to it is "Guy, Redeemed." (While we're on the subject, perhaps you can tell me what the actual title means.)

Does Reign Over Me exploit 9/11? Not in the Steven Spielberg sense: you don't feel exploited. But it would be a derogation of Mr Blinder's talent as writer and director not to suggest that he has made what is arguably the best "9/11" movie to date, and that, in doing so, he has unpacked the disaster's aftershock more comprehensively than anyone else. Take Charlie's loss: a much-loved wife and three adorable daughters. You could say, as Alan Johnson says when explaining the case to a psychiatrist who has a nearby office (a very beautiful Liv Tyler), that Charlie's family died in a plane crash. As indeed they did. But Mr Blinder takes great pains to bathe Charlie in an oblique aura of special victimhood. The film never tells you - because you don't need to be told - that Charlie's post-9/11 disintegration owes almost as much to an offense against the United States as to the sudden arrest of a speeding jet plane. Reign Over Me would be inconceivable if a defective aileron or some other failed mechanism were at the center of its plot. Charlie's loss has been trivialized for him simply because everybody knows about it, and that is a compounded violation. Denied the privacy of ordinary loss, Charlie retires from the world as well as from his own memories.

Reign Over Me is a buddy movie, with all the fixings. Alan and Charlie were roommates in college, and they both became dentists (an awkward overdetermination, I thought). Driving in the city one day, Alan spots Charlie on his scooter. When they connect, Charlie doesn't at first remember who Alan is. For his part, Alan is a successful professional whose life is somewhat too-well calibrated, and he has a lot to lose when he resolves to help his old friend recover an everyday humanity. Charlie is violent and disengaged, and he also takes up a lot of Alan's time, which Alan's wife, Janeane (Jada Pinkett Smith) isn't very happy about. The insistent indirection of guyish friendship is so prominently on display that one might accuse the filmmaker of critiquing it, were it not for the story's always-overwhelming context.

Besides, Reign Over Me is about very particular people, articulated with clear complexity, called Alan and Charlie. It is not about "two guys." Alan and Charlie may behave like "two guys" from time to time - it's the default mode for men of their background (as it is for most men in the Northeast of the United States). But Mr Sandler and Mr Cheadle manage to keep their characters well away from stereotype; their performances highlight the difference between familiarity and predictability.

One of the nicest things about Reign Over Me is really an absence: there isn't the faintest visual reference to the events of 9/11. There are no shots of Ground Zero, and although there's a funeral, there are no graveyards. Manhattan's streets, generously illustrated, are vibrant, not haunted. The city has moved on, and it's doing fine. That's what healthy - lucky - cities do: they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again. No film that I've seen has made this point more beautifully. (March 2007)

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