The Oscar Bait

The "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" team: Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Stephen Daldry and Max von Sydow

9/11: It was the central, traumatic event that determined much of the tragic course of the past decade, but it's a subject Hollywood has largely avoided. A few films (Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, Paul Greengrass' United 93) dared to re-create the events of that fateful day. But even as the nation has struggled to come to terms with its lingering aftermath, movies, more attuned to escaping into the past or projecting into the future than confronting the reality of the present, have avoided examining the wounds left behind.

Until Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. That director Stephen Daldry, backed by producer Scott Rudin, should dare to tackle Jonathan Safran Foer's novel should come as no surprise. The two collaborators proved with a film like The Hours (2002) that they aren't afraid of literary material that doesn't easily translate to film. And Foer's book, narrated by a 9-year-old boy, Oskar, as he wanders around Manhattan trying to unlock a mystery left behind by his father, one of the victims of 9/11, offered plenty of formidable challenges, both structural and emotional.

"I think people have to make up their own minds about whether they are ready to watch," says Daldry, 50. "For me, I felt ready to spend two years exploring this story, which is predominantly focused on a family's coping with the death of a father, son, husband."

Certainly, if moviegoers need reassuring presences to lure them into the drama, Daldry couldn't have found more reliable actors than Oscar winners Tom Hanks, 55, and Sandra Bullock, 47. Both know how to use their very likability to challenge audience expectations. As if to add historical perspective, the director brought in Max von Sydow, 82, who conveys Old World experience as a mysterious, mute man whom young Oskar befriends. But it was in casting Oskar that Daldry took his biggest risk. He vowed that unless he found the right boy, he wouldn't make the movie; then he spotted Thomas Horn, a Kids Week contestant onJeopardy! After a series of meetings, he somehow intuited that Horn, who had no acting experience, could master playing the wise-beyond-his-years Oskar.

Hanks, who plays Oskar's gone-missing father, says of the film's timing: "Ten years, more or less, might just be the beginnings of the opening of the window of the statute of limitations in order to deal with our own individual feelings." But with Hanks appearing onscreen mostly in flashbacks to happier days, it's Bullock who is asked to shoulder the film's most emotional scenes. "I loved how messy the grief was, because grief is messy," she says of Loud's anguished mother-son confrontations. "Everybody grieves completely different. You have generations of grief shown in this film. I don't want to say that I am representing a body of people, because I can't possibly connect to what the pain is that they feel. But for this woman, the struggle with her son I thought was so poignant in that it was complex and messy."

Horn, 14, who is impressively composed and madly precocious both onscreen and off, more than matches the older stars scene for scene. And while he hasn't decided yet if he wants to become a full-time actor -- he also is interested in computer programming, he says -- "I really liked the experience." But he's smart enough to know that "many experiences aren't like this even for experienced and very talented actors who are at the top level of filmmaking." The young man has figured it out: Most movies don't take these kind of chances.

Photographed on Dec. 15 at Canoe Studios in New York

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