There are points in history where the world looks back and recalls where they were exactly when it happened. As time goes on, the memory of those days recede into legend as past generations begin to leave us, and the only connection that we have left are the stories left behind. Even still, the one thing that these moments in time have in common is the suddenness in which they occurred and the scars that result from the aftermath. One such day was September 11, 2001. It’s a day that still is etched deeply in the collective trauma of those who experienced it, either first hand or through the nationwide shock of what occurred. Like many other days like it, it seemed like a normal, everyday morning. It was a beautiful, quiet day for most of us. But in the early morning, that all began to change. At 8:46am on the southern tip of the island of Manhattan, an American Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles crashed into the upper floors of the North tower of the World Trade Center. Believed to be a tragic accident at first, the response from first responders was swift but routine. Then, at 9:03am, the unthinkable happened. Another plane bound for Los Angeles flew right into the middle of the neighboring South tower. A mere 34 minutes later, another jet crashed into the south end of the Pentagon. And at this point, the world knew this was no accident. America was under attack. Only a few minutes later, New Yorkers witnessed the unthinkable as the South Tower buckled and collapsed, bringing all 110 floors crashing to the streets below. The North Tower followed soon after, only 100 minutes after the plane hit. News also broke that a fourth hijacked plane, United 93, had plummeted out of the sky in rural Pennsylvania, with it’s intended target (the US Capitol) never being reached. And as many Americans began waking up that morning, they would soon learn that the world they knew would never be the same.
That was the reality of September 11, 2001. An efficiently coordinated act of terrorism conducted by the terror group Al-Qaeda and it’s mastermind Osama Bin Laden. And as we would learn, it was only the beginning of massive changes for not just the United States but also for the entire world. For New Yorkers, they were left with unimaginable trauma after witnessing the iconic Twin Towers be erased from the Manhattan skyline forever. As the smoke cloud receded, the true scope of the damage was revealed. A gaping hole where the towers once stood mightily over the Financial District of Lower Manhattan now was a mangled pile of debris. It would take many months for all of the debris to be cleared in what effectively became the largest crime scene in world history. After the shock of the event, the question soon became what do we do now. Mourning soon gave way to retribution, as our leaders promised to bring down those who committed this terrible act. Sadly, the sense of unity that the tragedy brought in it’s immediate aftermath soon gave way to division, as the run-up to war soon became a political hot button issue. This likewise led to a widespread rise in Islamophobia across the country and the world, as everyday Muslim Americans, who have no connection whatsoever to the terrorist groups that actually committed the attack, were suddenly viewed as suspect. And that is a scar that still lives with us today, even as we are now almost a generation removed from the events. People with their own agendas likewise began spreading disinformation about what they believe really happened on 9/11, and this led to a rise in a conspiracy theory culture, which in turn has evolved into a monster of it’s own that caused a bungled response to a global pandemic. The mantra after the events of 9/11 would soon become “Never Forget,” and though we still honor the lives that were lost on that sad day, 20 years out we must look back and wonder what lessons we exactly took from 9/11, and whether or not we lost a part of ourselves in the process of coping with the tragedy, as political division, distrust in institutions, diminished global presence after costly wars, and a rise in nationalism and bigotry have come as a result of the tragedy.
Like many other earth-shattering events that have marked to progression of human history, a large part of how we process the impact of those events is through storytelling. Because 9/11 is still so fresh in people’s minds, and was so widely covered by the media as it happened, we have an endless supply of first hand accounts of what that day was like for everyone. And as we move further away in time, these artifacts of first hand accounts will tell the story of 9/11 for future generations. But the interesting thing that will likely define the decades ahead is what stories are we going to be telling about that day as more and more of us who remember it are no longer around. Specifically, what will it be like as we dramatize 9/11 in future media. Because so many Americans still live with the memory of living through that day, it becomes hard to distill 9/11 into a narrative that effectively puts it into perspective. That’s why we have so few movies that address the events head on. It’s hard to put people in the middle of the events again because for many, it’s a wound that still hurts. That’s not to say that there haven’t been attempts at it. The range of media related to 9/11 in the last twenty years have included documentaries (lots of those), narrative films, stage plays and even a Broadway musical (Come From Away), and the way that they address the events either falls into direct confrontation or periphery side stories. Overall, it’s interesting to see just how different we have processed the trauma of 9/11 in different forms of media, and how that has been contrary to other earth-shattering events like it. In particular, the movies of the 9/11 era have been an interesting assemblage over these last 20 years, and depending on who is making them and for what reason, you begin to see just how complicated the lasting discussion over the events of 9/11 has been.
For perspective, 9/11 is not the first tragedy to have been dramatized by Hollywood over the years. If it’s a headlines grabbing tragedy, there will almost certainly be a movie in it’s future. Two tragedies in particular over the last century of film have been especially impactful. First, there is the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Even with cinema in it’s infancy, the trauma of that colossal tragedy was encapsulated on film, with filmmakers using the tools of their trade at the time (including early animation and models) to recreate what happened that fateful night. In the years that followed, movies began to look at the events of the Titanic’s sinking as a backdrop for their own original stories. This included a fateful reveal in the Oscar-winning Cavalcade (1933), as well as an epic scale recreations in A Night to Remember (1947) and Titanic (1953). As the generations that followed began to grow more distant from the sinking of the Titanic, the connection to that trauma also disappeared. Upon the discovery of the wreckage of the Titanic as the bottom of the ocean, the tragedy took on a new phase, as legend etched in our collective history. This inevitably led to James Cameron’s behemoth Titanic (1997) which redefined cinema itself. And within it, we saw the interesting transformation of a tragedy turned into a backdrop for a epic romance. There’s nothing wrong with that angle in storytelling, but it’s something that probably would only have been acceptable after so much time has passed in-between. The same progression also has followed the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Unlike the Titanic, there were plenty of cameras rolling on that day, capturing the horrors of that day for everyone to see. But, it too also saw many film dramatizations in the decades that followed. It inspired it’s own epic romance with From Here to Eternity (1953), though the attack is used mostly as a starting point for the story. There were other interesting film adaptations that tried to put the attack on Pearl Harbor into perspective, like In Harm’s Way (1963) and Tora, Tora, Tora (1970) which took a both side dramatization of the events from both the American perspective and the Japanese. But, as Hollywood would learn, not all tragedies can be mined for entertainment so easily. Made in response to the success of Titanic, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) tried and failed to inject the events of that fateful day into an epic romance narrative. It’s interesting to see how the passage of time changes the way that we observe these tragic events and how real life trauma eventually molds into popular entertainment the further away we are from the immediate impact.
The same thing may hold true for the events of 9/11, but even 20 years out, we have yet to actually reach that point. Most movies made over the last two decades in relation to 9/11 have been more geared to the fallout of the tragedy and less towards actually recreating the day itself. There were a couple attempts though to do so, which surprisingly happened very early on. Upon marking the 5th anniversary of the events in 2006, two major movie studios had 9/11 themed films that centered around the actual events that took place. From Universal Studios, we got the movie United 93 (2006), directed by Paul Greengrass, and from Paramount we got World Trade Center (2006), directed by Oliver Stone. Both films attempted to tell the story of two different occurrences that happened that day. United 93 of course tells the story of the fateful flight that didn’t reach it’s ultimate target. Through his cinema verite style, Greengrass puts the viewer there inside the plane itself as the events unfold. We watch as the terrorists take over the plane and we see the way that the heroic passengers took it upon themselves to fight back and ultimately sacrifice themselves to thwart the terrorists from reaching their goal. In addition, Greengrass also details the goings-on from ground control, with some FAA officials even cast as themselves, recreating their own experiences from that day. It’s actually a really interesting dramatization of the event that does the best it can to put the viewer into the mindset of those who lived through the tragedy. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, by contrast, is a bit more conventional Hollywood with a more substantial budget for visual effects and movie stars. Even still, the story it does tell is a fascinating one of survival, as it’s about two first responder firefighters (played by Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena) who managed to survive the collapse of the towers and were pulled out of the rubble days later, broken but still living. It’s interesting that Stone chose to tell this kind of story, given his proclivity for conspiracy theories, but my guess is that it was more about honoring those heroes on that day and less about defining one’s own agenda in the narrative. To date, apart from multiple TV movies (including ones that lionize then President Bush and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani that have not aged well in retrospect) these are the only films from Hollywood that actually puts the viewer into the middle of the events of that day. Apart from that, 9/11 has largely been addressed through indirect reflection.
Perhaps it’s because the trauma of that day is still too raw for some people that we haven’t seen too many movies recreating the events of 9/11. One interesting outcome that came about in the aftermath of 9/11 was how Hollywood quickly had to adjust in the aftermath. A movie trailer for the then upcoming Spider-Man (2002) had to be pulled from theaters because it included a moment where a helicopter was dangling in a web strung in between the Twin Towers; which of course was no where to be seen in the final film as well. Other movies released during that time, like Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (2001), had to quickly scrub out any image of the World Trade Center in the background, in some cases digitally. The events also created a disruption in the world of entertainment that saw a halt in production for weeks across the industry, and even the shut down of theaters on Broadway for a few months. But, as time went on, the healing began and before we knew it, life was mostly back to normal. But, as we processed the way that the world changed in the days after 9/11, it began to manifest itself in the stories that we were telling about society in general. Spike Lee for instance addressed the impact of the terror attack on his beloved New York City in a protracted rant delivered by Edward Norton in the movie 25th Hour (2002), which really spells out the indignant rage that many people in the city felt about the senselessness of what happened. The war on terror that followed the attacks also have contributed a cinematic documentation of a post-9/11 world. In particular, the films of Kathryn Bigelow really delved into the effect of a world changed by terrorism in the last 20 years, with her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2009) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) which dramatized the long in the making manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, with his eventual execution at the hands of Seal Team Six, ten years after the attacks. While these movies don’t tackle the events head-on, they nevertheless tell us how the country and the world began to cope with the pain of those events in the years that followed. You can honestly find many other movies that address the trauma directly or indirectly with regards to 9/11, because it’s a moment in time that changed the world forever. It’s in our collective societal identity now, whether thorough culture, politics, or how we live our lives. 9/11 changed everything, so most movies made within the 20 years since that speak to our contemporary society is in some way or another influenced by those events.
What I find really fascinating about movies made in the wake of the tragedy of 9/11 is how they are evolving with every new passive generation. We are now approaching a point where those who were born during or after September 11, 2001 are now reaching adulthood. For them, 9/11 has just always been a part of their history. They have no concept of what life was like before, and so their response to the events is taken from a second degree perspective. In many ways, they are the audience that is going to be more influenced by the way we portray the events of 9/11 through the prism of film. And it’s in that regard that we’ll see a very different view of the events unfold over time as we get further and further away from the actual day, much like what happened to the Titanic and Pearl Harbor. There are no more survivors of the Titanic left to differentiate fact from fiction, and there are only a handful left who remember the events of Pearl Harbor with clarity. So will be the case with 9/11 as well. The best we can do as a society is to remind ourselves of the magnitude of what happened and treat the tragedy with a sense of dignified solace. We lose that, we lose perspective on what matters as a direct result of that tragedy. That’s why we remind ourselves, “Never Forget,” because the memory of 9/11 can be so easily manipulated to suit some external agenda that in turn can lead to many other tragedies. Hollywood itself is not above beyond using the tragedy of 9/11 for it’s own benefit. Take the case of the movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) which was a shameless attempt to use 9/11 trauma as a means of Oscar baiting. In the years ahead, we need to make sure that those indirectly impacted by 9/11 aren’t misinformed by sensationalized accounts of the tragedy that are more fiction than fact. One of the most interesting explorations of the legacy of 9/11 in cinema that I’ve recently seen on film is stories of those who have grown up in the shadow of the events. Last year, Judd Apatow brought to the screen the movie The King of Staten Island (2020), which is a semi-autobiographical story based on the life of the film’s star, comedian Pete Davidson. In the movie, an aimless 20-something slacker deals with coming into adulthood after living most of his life without his father, who died tragically when he was young while heroically fighting a fire. Though 9/11 is never mentioned, the story does reflect the real life story of Davidson, whose father was one of the first responders lost at the World Trade Center that day. It’s a perspective, the generation raised in the aftermath of 9/11, that we have yet to see and with many more young Americans like Pete Davidson coming of age in the next few years, and being able to express themselves through film too, it’s going to take the conversation about the impact of 9/11 into a whole different direction.
For those of us who were old enough to be aware of what was going on, and to remember where we were on that day, each one of us has our own story to tell in remembrance of 9/11 on that day. Strangely enough, my own is even movie related. I was at home watching The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939) on Turner Classic Movies that morning when I changed the channel after finishing the movie to find the South tower already collapsed and the North tower still smoking before it’s eventual demise. In retrospect, I can remember both the shock and the disbelief. For me, it immediately called to mind the larger than life disaster movies of the past that so casually depicted the destruction of national icons like the Empire State building or the White House. Now, after seeing the real Twin Towers utterly destroyed before our eyes, those kinds of movies in retrospect appear trivial and even reckless. This kind of destruction made us rethink the value of human life that succumbs to such a tragedy and helped us reconsider how we approach mass destruction as an element in our storytelling. At least that was the hope at the time, as many films since, particularly those of directors like Roland Emmerich and Zack Snyder have gone right back to creating mass destruction as a back drop for popcorn entertainment. The worry over time is that the lessons of 9/11, particularly the humanitarian side, will be pushed aside in favor of spectacle. With so many voices out there who still remember sharing their personal stories, that human perspective still remains, but as successive generations begin to add their own narratives to the mix, more becoming further attached from the events of the day, who knows how we as a society may reflect on the importance of 9/11. One thing that makes this 20th anniversary so impactful is that it is occurring in the middle of another worldwide tragedy, the Covid-19 pandemic, which is helping to remind everyone of what shared trauma really feels like. The pandemic itself is likely going to see it’s own evolution in media over the years, especially as future generations learn from our first hand accounts of these tragic days. There are plenty perspectives to take away from the way cinema has dramatized the post-9/11 era, but as we have learned thus far, the most potent stories are the ones that come from those who actually lived through those events, and the best thing we can do is to preserve those memories as best we can. On this day, if you aren’t anywhere near a memorial where you can pay your respects, look up an documentary that includes the harrowing recollections of first responders, victims, and people who were there that day, and listen to the grief, anger, hope that they feel and live with everyday since. That is the real story of 9/11 and the reason that even 20 years on we must never forget.