The Great 9/11 Movies

Five movies that, in one way or another, tell us about how we reacted to 9/11 and the days after.

But the more I  thought about these films the more I felt it was important to talk about them. Hollywood ended up making very few movies that directly addressed 9/11, and most of those - Reign O’er Me, Remember Me - are pretty much garbage. Even the Oliver Stone movie about 9/11, World Trade Center, fails to be anything more than a vaguely feel-good piece of claptrap. But Hollywood was much more successful addressing 9/11 and its aftermath obliquely. Four of the films below are either not technically about 9/11 or only touch on 9/11, but all of them have something profound to say about either 9/11 or the immediate aftermath.

United 93. This is the only film on the list that actually is specifically about 9/11. I have only seen it once, at a press screening in Midtown Manhattan, and that was enough for me. Paul Greengrass’ film is cinematic journalism, an attempt to recreate the doomed flight, and it succeeds not only factually (as best we can tell), but more importantly emotionally. One of the most stunning moments of heroism on 9/11, Greengrass’ movie doesn’t mythologize the passengers who fought back but presents them as humans making impossible choices without any time to think. It’s the only movie that is truly about the consciousness change of 9/11; when the hijack begins the passengers think  they’re in trouble, but it isn’t until they hear about planes crashing into the World Trade Center that they understand this isn’t just an attempt to get to Cuba or make some money. Ten years on we remember the terror of the events, but what was perhaps most terrifying on the day was the way the our understanding of the world was violently changed, the way that the familiar become tools of horror.

The 25th Hour. The original novel by David Benioff is not a 9/11 story, and technically you could say that Spike Lee’s version isn’t either. But Lee perfectly integrates the destruction of 9/11 into this story of the destruction of a man’s life, the debris-filled hole at Ground Zero representing the remains of his existence as he prepares to go to prison. Any movie set in New York after 2001 had to in some way reflect the reality of living in that wounded city, but no other movie so fully understood and portrayed the pain and the anxiety and the fear and the hope of the year right after 9/11 the way The 25th Hour did. This was the first in a 9/11 duology for Lee - The Inside Man is very much an examination of New York as it has settled into its post-9/11 life (I’m not including his 2001 short Come Rain or Come Shine here because it was one of those semi-kneejerk Concert For New York City things) - and while it may not be as effortlessly entertaining as that Denzel Washington bank heist movie, it remains an incredibly powerful look at the way we struggle to find meaning and hope in the worst situations.

War of the Worlds. Some day someone will make a big, extravagant Pearl Harbor-esque movie about 9/11. Whatever their budget and research, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to capture a fragment of the realistic disaster terror that Steven Spielberg conjures in his updating of the HG Wells alien invasion movie. The chaos, fear and confusion that he brings to the screen was, when I saw it in 2005, almost like being back on September 11th. The metaphor isn’t subtle - the victims of the Martians are vaporized into a grey dust, just like the victims in the World Trade Center - but that doesn’t make it any less effective. War of the Worlds extrapolates the terrors of 9/11 into a bigger, longer horror, and anyone who complains about the ending, with Tom Cruise’s son showing up at home, probably has no idea what it was like to try to make a frantic call to a loved one that Tuesday morning, getting only a message that the system was overloaded.

Man on Wire. Technically not a 9/11 movie, Man on Wire is the ultimate World Trade Center movie, an ode to their weird ugliness and central importance in the New York City skyline. Man on Wire is a documentary about how Phillipe Petit, a weird Frenchman, illegally set up and walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974, when the building was still new. Funny and thrilling, Man on Wire did something amazing in 2008 - it reclaimed the Twin Towers from the dominant images of the past seven years, restoring it to something you could look at without feeling anxiety or pain.

The Dark Knight. A maniac brings chaos and destruction to a great East Coast city, and only one man, seemingly a playboy party animal but actually a dedicated and violent servant of righteousness, can sidestep traditional, legal methods and bring him to justice. We can debate all day whether or not Christopher Nolan meant it this way, but The Dark Knight is a parable about the War on Terror, one that posits George W. Bush and his Patriot Act spy state as the heroes we needed, even if they terrified us and we found it hard to love them. “Superheroes are fascists,” ie the Alan Moore Axiom, has never been presented with as much ambivalence as it is in The Dark Knight. The film tries to provide multiple points of view, including the idea that Batman’s attempt to bring peace to his city (read: US imperialism and policing abroad) created The Joker (read: the chaos of the world, personified by Osama bin Laden), but it never feels convinced of these sentiments. The film also has a confused relationship to its own ideas about extra-legal justice, with Batman trying to stop Harvey Dent from taking the law into his own hands. But it’s the moral confusion at the center of the film which makes it completely indicative of the post-9/11 decade.