9/11 in Film

The terror and horror of this day fifteen years ago permanently traumatized this country in a way that, like many momentous events in America’s history, has seeped into the national psyche and been filtered out through popular culture and mass media. Movies in particular have soaked up the imagery and political fallout of 9/11. Images that recall the destruction of the Twin Towers run rampant through many Hollywood entertainments and dramas. Films exploring terrorism, torture and homeland security crop up time and time again. When it comes to the day itself, however, Hollywood has taken awkward steps towards it, often stumbling around 9/11 or avoiding it entirely. Below is a short list of exceptional films that dared to come to grips with 9/11 or its aftermath.

“Fahrenheit 9/11,” directed by Michael Moore

If there’s one filmmaker who will forever be linked to 9/11 and, subsequently, the War on Terror, it is documentarian Michael Moore. Moore believes that, when the towers crumbled, so too did the morality and integrity of the Bush administration. In this then controversial 2004 documentary, Moore takes this administration to task. Mixing wit, goofy asides and powerful images, Moore unleashes a provocative indictment of the policies and deceit that led to the War in Iraq at a time when much of America fully supported Iraq’s occupation. Moore also attacks the mainstream media for what he felt was a slanted and inaccurate analysis and coverage of the rationale for war and its consequences. Today, much of it will play as common knowledge for many viewers. But try not be be unsettled by a passage showing George W. Bush sitting in silence in a Florida classroom after learning of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the seconds ticking away. And a montage set to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” that concludes with footage of one of the planes hitting the towers will freeze the blood. The film remains the highest grossing documentary of all time.

“25th Hour,” directed by Spike Lee

Spike Lee made this brilliant film just a year after the towers fell. At a time when studios and directors rushed to erase any images of the Twin Towers from movies filmed before 9/11 or avoided their absence in shots of the New York City skyline, the New York native put that absence front and center. This absence haunts the narrative. The film, about a drug dealer named Monty (Edward Norton) enjoying his final days of freedom before a seven-year prison sentence, tackles 9/11 as a state of mind, or more appropriately, a state of mourning. The film opens with a shot of twin floodlights where the towers once stood. The score by Terence Blanchard is sorrowful and elegiac, a mood that has seeped into the bones of the characters, affecting how they talk and interact. Anger, despair and dissolution blanket the proceedings. In one scene, two of Monty’s friends grapple with the realization that he will never be the same after his jail time. They talk in an apartment complex that overlooks the devastation of the World Trade Center. This grim shadow of reality on the drama elevates the emotions of “25th Hour” to almost operatic levels. Watch for the amazing sequence in which Monty looks into a mirror and screams “F-yous” at every ethnic, social and racial group in New York before finally arriving at himself. A better cinematic encapsulation of America’s seething anger and frustration post 9/11 you will not see.

“United 93,” directed by Paul Greengrass

Too soon. That’s how many moviegoers felt about this 2006 film about the doomed United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania after its passengers attempted to overtake the hijackers. But British filmmaker Paul Greengrass brought a breathtaking immediacy and sense of veracity to the film. Greengrass’s achievement neither demonized the terrorists or romanticized the passengers’ actions. And he narrows his view only to what happened on the plane. Greengrass tells the story in present tense; we know only as much as the characters (played by mostly unknown actors) do. Greengrass also hires many of the flight attendants and airline personnel to play themselves. Scene after visceral scene will punch you in the gut. But if you imagine the irresponsible roads this movie could’ve taken, you’ll realize the way Greengrass made his movie is the most tasteful and honorable tribute to this tragedy.

“Margaret,” directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Studio Fox Searchlight shamefully mishandled this masterful drama. Shooting began in 2005 before it went through a number of editing jobs, multiple lawsuits and a rather quiet limited release in 2011 before almost vanishing in obscurity. Obscurity, however, is the last place one should find what is perhaps the most searching and searing depiction of a post 9/11 New York on film. Like “25th Hour,” a mood of post traumatic stress permeates Lonergan’s movie, which concerns the tragic consequences a terrible accident has on the life of a privileged Manhattan teen named Lisa (Anna Paquin) and the people in her life. The way the accident punctures Lisa’s sense of security and self and fills her with bitterness and uncertainty mirrors America’s own grappling with such feelings over the past decade. In the film, these feelings complicate and corrupt Lisa’s relationships with family and strangers alike, most heatedly in intense classroom exchanges between her and a Muslim student that touch on American nationalism and religious radicalism. Beyond its timely subtext, this film captures the agonies and difficulties of communication, how we so often use words to wound or evade each other. Scenes play out with the raw and messy rhythms of real life. When it ends, one feels like the characters are still fighting to be understood, still fighting to understand themselves and a world that seems much more dangerous than it once did.

“Zero Dark Thirty,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow

The defining film on the War on Terror so far, Kathryn Bigelow’s tough, uncompromising procedural tackled the decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden. The opening to the film is chilling: a black screen accompanied by real 9-1-1 calls of terrified individuals trapped inside the World Trade Center. We will then cut to a CIA agent torturing a terrorist suspect. The message in the juxtaposition rings loud and clear: The torture of terrorist suspects following the 9/11 attacks were more than just the U.S. dealing in “the dark side,” as Dick Cheney declared, but in many ways a reprisal for the cruelty enacted upon us. Bigelow swam these tricky waters in this 2012 Best Picture nominee. Bigelow got in trouble from critics and politicians alike when they called the authenticity of some of the film’s plot points into question. Bigelow seemed to want it both ways, stressing her freedom of interpretation as an artist yet asserting her fidelity to the truth. If the film doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny as a matter of fact, it’s riveting as cinema. Bigelow stages scenes of violence and suspense with elegance and razor sharp clarity. And as the obsessively driven CIA agent Maya, Jessica Chastain perfectly conveys our society’s frustration, fatigue and need for closure. You know how it ends (spoiler alert: we got ‘em), but film’s conclusion doesn’t cry “‘Merica!” One gets a sense that, the mission over, Maya doesn’t know what to do next. The implication: neither does anyone else.

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