How Hollywood Can Honor Those Who Died in Aurora Theater

When fiction meets real life.

The moving of the much-anticipated Gangster Squad from September to January is not the first time a movie studio has responded to a nationally acknowledged tragedy, in this case the senseless multiplex shooting in Aurora.

After the events of September 11, 2001, two moviesCollateral Damage (Arnold Schwarzenegger battles terrorists) and Big Trouble (a bomb and a hijacked plane)—had their releases pushed back to 2002. After the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman incident, which is playing out like an endless suburban version of Bonfire of the Vanities, The Neighborhood Watch was renamed The Watch. An original poster for the awful comedy starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn featured bullet holes, which were wisely removed.

James Holmes’s unimaginable act during a late-night showing of The Dark Knight Rises two weeks ago presented Warner Bros. with a disaster born out of unfortunate coincidence. Gangster Squad’s original trailer featured a scene where, according to Moviefone, “four men, dressed in trenchcoats, emerge from behind a movie screen, firing into the theater.” And that trailer ran before The Dark Knight Rises, another Warner Bros. feature.

The studio pulled the trailer immediately and removed it from a variety of online outlets. That was a good decision. As for sending Gangster Squad to the forgotten terrain of January, that depends. The Hollywood Reporter reports that the schedule change will allow time for reshoots of what’s described as a “climactic scene.”

If that isn’t the case, then decorum has been stretched to denial. We all know the scene exists or existed. The footage, if it’s not essential to the narrative, can be deleted. (Those looking for a precedent can turn to 1993’s college football drama The Program, where the film’s hero lies in the middle of a busy street to prove his mettle. After people were killed mimicking the act, including two Pennsylvania teens, that scene didn’t make home video.) Regardless of Warner Bros.’ motives, its handling of the Aurora tragedy has been wishy-washy, at best, and patronizing, at worst.

The Dark Knight Rises is an excellent movie, a commentary on 21st-century mores disguised as a popcorn flick. But Bane (Tom Hardy), the film’s rapture-minded villain, seems in sync with Holmes’s awful mind-set, not to mention with the apparent copycat in Maryland who was stopped. But the movie’s release wasn’t delayed by a week to honor the victims or to prepare a proper response among theater owners. The show went on. But it was totally OK because Warner Bros. paid respect to the victims by not releasing the movie’s box office results until Monday afternoon.

Yeah, I can’t figure that one out either.

Nothing Warner Bros. has done, or plans to do, will solve the real problem. Like any creative endeavor—art, literature, dance, music—movies are open to interpretation. God help us if a troubled soul with a cracked moral foundation comes away with the wrong message. Whenever a terrible event happens, we yearn for lessons and explanations, for ways to honor the victims. Happier movies and more upbeat marketing campaigns don’t qualify. Neither do empty gestures that make Hollywood studio execs look like Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. In fact, the lessons are so simple that they’re almost insulting. Parents, teachers and authority figures must explain to kids that violence and sex in movies are creative expressions, some of which are more successful than others, not endorsements for committing the acts depicted. Friends and family members must talk to loved ones who appear troubled and steer them toward counseling. Security in movie theaters, as Victor Fiorillo recently wrote on the Post, must consist of more than a retiree with a flashlight and a walkie-talkie.

That’s how we should honor the dead in Aurora, not with reshoots and delays.