Charlie Sheen's truther remarks complicate ‘9/11’ movie release
It's been 16 years since the Sept. 11 attacks devastated New York, America and the world as a whole, and many people still aren't ready to watch a movie about that awful day.
An upcoming film on the tragedy, "9/11," stars Charlie Sheen and centers on five fictional people who get trapped inside an elevator in the World Trade Center's North Tower during the very real and horrific events that transpired in 2001.
For a combination of reasons, including its controversial star, the film has been panned on social media as "offensive" ever since its melodramatic first trailer appeared online last month.
That's not how the film's director, Martin Guigui, or its stars intended for it to come across. They approached the project — which is based on Patrick Carson's 2011 stage play "Elevator" — with the goal of handling the delicate subject matter with sensitivity and reverence for the victims and their families.
"Out of respect for the 9/11 community, this is an inspiring story about the heroes," Guigui told the Daily News.
"It's really about the first responders and people who sacrificed their lives to save others."
He highlights a specific goal that he kept in mind while making the movie.
"The key for us was to tell an honest story, and unlike the other 9/11 films that have been made, this one is about the humanity," Guigui said.
"Five people who come from different backgrounds … their religious beliefs, the color of their skin, their political views — none of that matters anymore."
Actress and New York City resident Gina Gershon — who plays Sheen's wife, Eve, in the movie — says she was moved by the project and encouraged by Guigui' s vision.
"I knew it was a touchy subject, but I believed the director had the right intentions," says Gershon, whose character gets trapped in the elevator.
"I knew he was very sensitive and we wanted to portray these people and this experience from a very unique point of view."
But the film has been largely overshadowed by its casting of Sheen, a controversial figure who years ago notoriously voiced his doubts about what really happened on 9/11.
Sheen, who some have called a "9/11 truther," expressed his skepticisms during a 2006 interview on divisive conservative commentator Alex Jones' radio show, when he suggested that a "controlled demolition" actually caused the Twin Towers to collapse.
"We're not the conspiracy theorists on this issue," Sheen said in the interview. "It seems to me like 19 amateurs with box cutters taking over four commercial airliners and hitting 75% of the targets — that feels like a conspiracy theory."
Both Guigui and Gershon said that Sheen — who declined an interview request and hasn't done any press for the movie — did not mention his views on 9/11 while they were on set.
However, the director felt that Sheen was a perfect fit to play Jeffery Cage, a Wall Street tycoon who also gets trapped, because he had portrayed a similar character in 1987’s "Wall Street."
While Guigui acknowledges that he was aware of Sheen's conspiracy remarks about the Sept. 11 attacks, he didn't let those past comments impact the casting.
"I think everybody has known about those comments," Guigui said. "There are many people who have made comments along those lines over the years. I found out when everybody else did. But that was never something that affected my decision-making process.
"I see Charlie as an extraordinary talent, and I gotta tell you, when he came to the set, he inspired everybody and he rose to the occasion."
Gershon, 55, also raved about Sheen's performance, but admits she wasn't aware of the actor's past 9/11 speculation until after they'd already wrapped up production. She acknowledges that she would've spoken to Sheen about those remarks before committing to the film, had she known at the time.
"I certainly would've had a discussion with him and the director about it," Gershon said.
"If I had thought that was the slant on this film, I don't think I would've done it. It's too sensitive of a topic to go there, and it just feels really disrespectful to everyone who's gone through that. … I would've definitely had a conversation with Charlie and with the director just to find out to make sure what exactly we were trying to achieve."
The movie features a strong cast, with Whoopi Goldberg and Luis Guzman also among its stars.
Sheen too is a decorated actor with a noteworthy history of dramatic and comedic credits, but is a risky casting choice for such a sensitive film. given the controversy that has frequently surrounded his personal life — from substance abuse and allegations of domestic violence to being diagnosed with HIV.
The starring gig in "9/11" marks his first major dramatic role since announcing his diagnosis in 2015.
The film serves as something of a return to dramatic acting for Sheen, who has recently been associated with sitcoms "Two and a Half Men" and "Anger Management," after memorable movie roles such as "Platoon" and "Major League."
He took on a starring role behind the scenes of "9/11" by helping to develop the script and bringing on another writer, in addition to involving his brother Emilio Estevez as a creative consultant.
"Charlie was incredibly focused on his character and the story, and telling this beautiful story about the heroes," Guigui said. "That's why he made the movie. He was the one who helped develop the script so that it would be about a homage to the heroes."
The emotional nature of the film took a toll on those who made it — Guigui says the production designer built every set to scale in an effort to make it feel more authentic. They used actual smoke, real fire and the actors did their own stunts.
"There was a realism," Guigui said. "Our touchstone was realism. … It was very emotional and very tough, challenging for the crew as well. They were spectacular. The cast rose to the occasion, and their fortitude is magnificent."
Many people involved with the movie have a direct connection to New York. Guigui and Sheen were born in the Big Apple, and Gershon has lived in Lower Manhattan for years. Although she was in Toronto on the actual day of the terrorist attacks, she did everything she could to help at Ground Zero once she was able to return.
"I lived in Tribeca. I was with the Red Cross. I was down in the Twin Towers in the site, helping people," Gershon said.
"I saw a lot of that with my own eyes. Of course I met people who were looking for their loved ones, and every time a body was found I heard the siren go off. I was in the thick of it. It's something I will never forget."
Gershon described her decision to join the film as an "emotional reaction."
"For some reason, I thought it would be cathartic and it would help me personally, on some level," she said. "I don't know if it did or not, to be honest."
Starring in "9/11" forced Gershon to relive certain memories of the tragedy. Production took a toll on her, as did watching the completed film for the first time.
"When I saw it, I just felt sick. I felt sick doing it," she said. "There's a part of me that was like, 'Yes, I want to do this,' and as I was doing it, there were certain moments of like 'Oh, God.' Just reliving that was pretty horrible."
Creating a movie centered on 9/11 comes with major challenges for a director, considering many may still consider the subject too raw for Hollywood. But past dramas that tragic day have garnered critical acclaim, including Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" and Paul Greengrass' "United 93," which New York University film professor David Irving believes worked because "they had wonderful stories."
"I think it depends on what the film itself is," Irving said. "If the film clicks, if it works, people will go see it."
However, "9/11" has been subject to pushback. After the first trailer appeared online, some social media users condemned it as a "disgusting money grab," while others criticized the Sheen casting. A Los Angeles Times headline about the trailer reads: "First trailer for Charlie Sheen's '9/11' movie is ... well, you decide."
The polarizing trailer features dramatic music and shows scenes in slow motion, only heightening the intensity. On YouTube, one upload of the trailer has 2,000 dislikes — against just 1,000 likes.
Meanwhile, a woman who lost her firefighter son in 9/11 told the Daily News last year that she has "no interest" in seeing "9/11."
It's also worth noting that Sheen did not attend the premiere in Los Angeles earlier this week, and screenings of the film were not made available to critics before opening day. But Irving believes the movie can succeed if those who see it like it, and tell others.
"At the end of the day, a movie is a movie, even if it's with some controversial actors," he said.
"When you (consider) Mr. Sheen's participation and the reaction, there is an interesting expression in our industry which is 'any publicity is good publicity.'"
Guigui, meanwhile, says he's not surprised that there's been controversy regarding the movie, considering its sensitive subject matter. But he remains confident people will "formulate an honest opinion about it" once they actually see it.
"It's really not a film to be praised, or a film to be criticized," Guigui said.
"It's a film to be experienced."
"9/11" arrives in theaters on Sept. 8.