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The Cinema of the 9/11 Era

Introduction

On September 11, 2001 a group of nineteen terrorists hijacked four jet airplanes taking off from airports in the northeastern United States. Two of the airplanes crashed into the high-rise towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. The impact caused the towers to collapse. A third plane crashed into the Pentagon. The passengers aboard the fourth plane fought the hijackers for control and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. The entire attack was over relatively quickly. The first plane took off about 8am and by 10:30am the second tower had collapsed. Nearly 3000 people were killed, making 9/11 the deadliest terrorist attack in history.

9/11 was planned and carried out by Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda, an organization which was headed by Osama bin-Laden and headquartered in Afghanistan where the Taliban, that country’s ruling political party, had given bin-Laden and al-Qaeda shelter and support. The United States declared a global war or terror. Intelligence agencies were given broad powers to collect private information on foreign nationals and United States citizens alike. Suspected terrorists were apprehended and held in a legal limbo where they were denied due process and were subjected to torturous interrogation. The government waged military interventions in a variety of countries. The United States invaded Afghanistan and later Iraq, a country whose government was not linked to 9/11 or al-Qaeda. Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by Navy SEALs in 2011.  

When we talk about 9/11, we can refer to the specific events of a specific day but we can also refer to an era that begins with the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 and extends to the present. The latter definition is more useful. It encapsulates all of what was enabled as a result of the attack including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the expansion of the surveillance state, and the experiences of Muslims in America and abroad.

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema considered some of that breadth with a look back at films about 9/11 as well as the way the terrorist attack and our response to it were reflected in the movies. This commentary profiles some notable films and considers how the movies dramatized, interpreted, and channeled the images and anxieties of that time.

Documentaries

The best place to start is the documentary genre. There have been many documentaries about 9/11 dealing with its different aspects from the ideology of terrorism and fundamentalism to the physics of the World Trade Center collapse to the failures of the United States’ intelligence agencies. One of the essential documentaries on this subject is the 2002 film simply titled 9/11. The picture was a result of a coincidence. Filmmaking siblings Jules and Gédéon Naudet were shooting a documentary about New York City firefighters. The filmmakers tagged along as the firefighters responded to reports of a gas leak near the World Trade Center. At it happened, the filmmakers captured images of the first plane hitting the towers and then documented the rest of the attack at ground zero as it unfolded. It is extraordinary footage that gives the viewer a front row seat to the chaos and fear of that day.

While the Naudet brothers’ documentary provided an inside view of what happened at the World Trade Center, other documentaries have offered a broader view of what happened. The Netflix documentary series Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror does an admirable job of doing just that. Released to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, the series consists of five one-hour episodes with the first two parts dealing with the attack itself. Turning Point puts 9/11 into a historical context, connecting what happened in September 2001 with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and a series of terrorist attacks committed against American properties throughout the 1990s. The second half of Turning Point examines the aftermath of the attack, namely the United States’ invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. And like the Naudet brothers’ firefighter documentary, Turning Point benefits from timing. With America’s military officially withdrawing from Afghanistan at the same time of the documentary’s release, it offers a bookended examination of the 9/11 era.

Not all of the documentary films made about 9/11 were necessarily helpful or constructive. One of the most important 9/11 films, and one of the most unfortunate, was Loose Change. In the aftermath of the carnage and the staggering loss of life, conspiracy theories abounded. Loose Change purported to expose 9/11 as a false flag event and claimed that the attacks were orchestrated by the United States government. Loose Change was ninety minutes of nonsense but that didn’t stop the film from gaining traction. 9/11 conspiracy theories became widespread in large part due to this film. Loose Change is one of the most significant films of the 2000s in part because it was disseminated online. The film arrived around the same time as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and Loose Change foreshadowed the way that social media platforms would become a bastion of disinformation.

Relatedly, another significant 9/11 documentary was Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore’s movie was one of the most controversial films of the 2000s. It didn’t make the kind of irresponsible or outrageous claims of Loose Change but it’s worth considering those films together. Fahrenheit 9/11 was, at some level, a feature length political attack ad. It made the case that George W. Bush and company lied to the American public to justify the invasion of Iraq and that the war was not fought for security or democracy but to make money. Moore positioned himself in opposition to the mainstream press which did not sufficiently question the Bush administration’s case for war. In essence, Fahrenheit 9/11 accused the mainstream press of being “fake news” long before that term became a partisan political slogan. The failure of the news media left a gap that was filled by movies like Fahrenheit 9/11 and Loose Change.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the mainstream press largely failed to explain what happened or to critique the decisions made by those in power before and after the attack. This created a credibility gap in the mainstream news media. Documentary filmmakers filled that gap and the genre became an alternative press in the 2000s. Audiences responded. Fahrenheit 9/11 remains the highest grossing documentary film ever made and its success prompted imitations and reactions from across the political spectrum. The countercultural stance of these movies capitalized on a crisis of confidence in the press that’s only gotten worse in the last twenty years. As computer technology has become more powerful and more accessible, much of this filmmaking has moved online.

9/11 Dramas

There have been quite a few dramas set around 9/11 including several that dramatized the attack and the lead up to it. By far the most frequently dramatized story is the events on United Airlines flight 93 in which the passengers retook control of the airplane from the hijackers and subsequently crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. And of the many dramas about that flight, the definitive movie is 2006’s United 93. Directed by Paul Greengrass, the movie has a cinema verité style. From the point at which the aircraft takes flight to the end, United 93 unfolds in real time and some of the roles are played by non-actors or the actual people play themselves. United 93 is an extraordinarily intense film but it deals with difficult subject matter tastefully and with consideration for the victims and the survivors.

But what’s interesting about the United 93 story is how often it has been dramatized and what that says about our memory of 9/11 and the way the culture has tried to memorialize it. Telling stories is a way to transpose meaning and value onto historical events. The narrative of United 93 is a deliberate attempt to reframe 9/11 not as a win for terrorists but as a demonstration of average people rising to the occasion and sacrificing themselves for the greater good.

The other frequent 9/11 narrative is the failure of intelligence agencies to stop the attack. Two television miniseries have taken on that topic. The first was The Path to 9/11 which aired on ABC in September 2006. It was a two-part drama with the first half set during the Clinton administration and the second half was set during the George W. Bush administration. But only the first half was shown to a preview audience and before its broadcast the movie was attacked on political lines. At the time, Hillary Clinton was preparing to run for president in 2008 and The Path to 9/11 became a political football. After airing once, the movie was never seen again and it is not presently available.  In 2018 the miniseries The Looming Tower premiered on Hulu. This miniseries also told the backstory of intelligence failures leading up to the 9/11 attack but it was more invested in the rivalry between the FBI and the CIA and the way those agencies undercut each other’s efforts. Notably, The Looming Tower largely unfolds from the point of view of FBI agent Ali Soufan, played by Tahar Rahim, and Soufan is credited as a producer on the series, meaning that The Looming Tower should be taken as the FBI’s side of the story.

Both The Looming Tower and The Path to 9/11 make an interesting contrast with United 93 and similar movies. The implicit message of the espionage films is the failure of the intelligence community to work cooperatively and to act in the best interest of the nation while United 93 is quite literally about a group of strangers coming together and facing the enemy that slipped through the government’s fingers. This framework fits into a popular American motif: a lack of confidence in government and a preference for the heroism of everyday people. 

Torture

One of the most disconcerting issues of the 9/11 era was the United States’ use of torture techniques and the mistreatment of its captives. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, there was tremendous goodwill toward the United States and the country entered into the War on Terror with a decisive moral upper hand. That quickly evaporated with the revelations that the United States government was violating the Geneva Conventions and engaging in torturous interrogations. Filmmakers addressed the issue with some of the most provocative movies in the 9/11 milieu.

Torture was the focus of two notable documentaries. One of these was Standard Operating Procedure. Directed by Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure examined what happened at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq where United States servicepeople photographed themselves sexually abusing their captives. The film includes interviews with those who committed these acts and allows some insight into their mindset. Another notable torture documentary was Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side. The film told the story an Afghan taxi driver who was beaten to death by American soldiers while detained at Bagram air base. The film uses this captive’s story to expose a broader pattern of torture and abuse. In one of the film’s more provocative sequences Taxi to the Dark Side connects the justifications and images of real-life torture with the use of torture as a storytelling device in the drama 24 which was one of the most popular television programs at that time.

Aside from 24, images of torture were quite common in movies of the 9/11 era especially in the horror genre. The mid-2000s saw the genre make a major comeback with extreme body horror films, namely Saw and Hostel and their sequels. The better examples of these movies, which were dubbed “torture porn” by some critics, went beyond gory thrills and had something to say about power and the human body. They may have also provided some relief. The most horrific images of the 9/11 attack were generally censored or seen at such a distance that the gory details weren’t visible. These torture porn movies may have satisfied a subconscious need to see representations of the bodily damage we all knew had happened.

Torture found its way into more mainstream films as well. Rendition was a 2007 drama about an Egyptian chemical engineer who is wrongly swept up in a counterterrorism operation and is tortured at a black site. In 2010’s Unthinkable, a terrorist claims to have planted multiple bombs and an interrogator is brought in to get the information out of him before the bombs explode. These movies cast major Hollywood actors including Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, and Samuel L. Jackson and they played as glossy Hollywood versions of the torture porn horror pictures.

The torture debate became central to the release of 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. This movie was primarily about the hunt for Osama bin-Laden but it included sequences in which captives are tortured. The film caused a furor with politicians and commentators blasting the movie for implying that torture led to bin Laden’s location when in fact no usable information was ever generated by torture. And in fact, Zero Dark Thirty does not portray this. In one of the film’s key scenes, a captive starts spouting all manner of answers to appease his interrogators and stop the torture. However, viewers who aren’t watching closely and see torture at the beginning of the movie and bin Laden killed at the end could easily come away with the wrong impression.

The torture debate is so powerful in part because it reveals a contradiction between America’s stated ideals and the reality of our actions. It also illustrates one of the defining challenges of the 9/11 era—how to deal with terrorism while preserving rule of law. This tension is well dramatized in 2021’s The Mauritanian. The film dramatized the legal saga of Mohamedou Ould Slahi who was held for fourteen years at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The film makes clear that this ad-hoc legal system was not designed to get at the truth but to reach a predetermined conclusion.

Historical Movies

Some filmmakers dealt with 9/11 by dramatizing the present but others looked to the past, sometimes reaching into antiquity and at other times revaluating recent history in light of current events.

The early 2000s had a surplus of sword and shield films, some that were derived from history and others that were fantastical. Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic Kingdom of Heaven was about the Crusades of the 12th century and the conflict between Christians and Muslims over the city of Jerusalem. The film played up the religious angle for the 9/11 audience, showing how religious fanaticism shaped political decisions while also presenting a nuanced portrait of everyone involved.

During the debate about torture and due process, Robert Redford produced The Conspirator, a legal drama set in the post-Civil War era about the trial of Mary Surratt for her alleged role in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln. Like a lot of similar legal dramas, The Conspirator was about a lawyer who represents a hated defendant and fights not only the prosecution but also the legal system. The Conspirator implicitly compared the trial of Mary Surratt with the denial of habeas corpus to those suspected of terrorism; the parallels between The Conspirator and The Mauritanian are striking.

Set in the more recent past, Charlie Wilson’s War was a sort of origin story for al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attack. The film dramatizes the way the United States waged a proxy war in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s, supplying the Afghan resistance fighters with weapons to fight the occupying forces of the Soviet Union. Charlie Wilson’s War represents the official history of America’s involvement in Afghanistan and it is a compromised movie. It is now known that the United States fueled the resistance to the Soviet-friendly Afghan government, baiting the Soviet Union to invade. This is quite different from the portrayal in Charlie Wilson’s War in which the Soviet invasion was unprovoked and America interceded to stop a humanitarian disaster. The film’s other big omission is the ending. According to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, as written and shot Charlie Wilson’s War ended with the mujahadeen fighters supplied and trained by the CIA becoming al-Qaeda and carrying out the 9/11 attack. As Sorkin put it, this was the punchline to the joke of the movie. As it is, the finished film acknowledges 9/11 but it softens the implication that Charlie Wilson was indirectly responsible for the September 11th attack.

One of the most provocative and interesting historical films to come out of the 9/11 period was Steven Spielberg’s Munich. This film was about the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics and Israel’s assassination program targeting the people who planned the attack. Munich was a complicated film that was also quite bold. Making a movie about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is challenging enough but Munich then used that conflict to critique America’s response to 9/11. It wasn’t simply a call for peace; Munich dramatized the way societies sometimes have to negotiate with their values but it also questions the cost of that compromise. It’s a morally complex film, much more so than we usually expect from Steven Spielberg and it’s one of the director’s underappreciated movies.

Genre Movies

In addition to historical tales, filmmakers also used genre movies to address the anxieties of the 9/11 era. This was especially true of sci-fi and fantasy films which allow filmmakers and audiences to confront contemporary issues in an indirect way that makes the political point easier to take.

Steven Spielberg made two sci-fi pictures that very obviously channeled post-9/11 issues. The first of these was Minority Report. Based on the story by Philip K. Dick, Minority Report posited a future in which law enforcement arrests people for crimes that they are going to commit in the future. Although released in 2002, Minority Report was reflective of the way law enforcement was empowered in 9/11 era. Spielberg also directed a 2005 version of War of the Worlds, imagining an alien invasion. The images of the initial extraterrestrial attack made blatant reference to the news footage of New Yorkers fleeing the collapsing World Trade Center.

That specific image of urban destruction appeared repeatedly in sci-fi and fantasy movies depicting mass carnage. 2008’s Cloverfield, with its shaky handheld camera work and destroyed cityscape, also recalled 9/11 news footage as did the climax of 2013’s Man of Steel in which Metropolis is destroyed. The filmmakers doubled down on the 9/11 parallel in the prologue to Batman v. Superman. And as Scott Mendelson pointed out, 2012’s The Avengers was so resoundingly successful because it was a wish fulfillment fantasy in which superheroes saved New York City from a 9/11-style cataclysm.  

Other comic book films worked in 9/11 references. 2002’s Spider-Man, which is set in New York City, added some additional shots to the climax that capitalized on the patriotism and solidarity that were popular in the aftermath of the terrorist attack. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy also reflected anxieties about terrorism. The second installment in particular nodded to several trending topics about law and order and the problem of escalation and lawless vigilantism.

Zombie films became very popular in the years after 9/11. Night of the Living Dead creator George Romero returned to the subgenre with Land of the Dead which was very much a zombie film for the George W. Bush era. One of the more blatant parallels for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was 28 Weeks Later. Set in London, an American military force has established a green zone where refugees can return following the pacification of the zombie threat until it resurges and all hell breaks loose.

Comedy and especially satire also channeled 9/11. Much of this was found on television but one notable feature film was Four Lions. This was a British black comedy about a group of Islamic suicide bombers and it was simultaneously very funny but also very bleak. A very different tone was taken by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker with Team America: World Police. This film was a parody of Hollywood action films like those helmed by Michael Bay and Team America is one of the essential films of the 9/11 era. Its satire was dead on with the film anticipating aspects of Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper.

Combat Films

Hollywood and the United States military have a long and complementary history. Some of their relationship is transactional. Hollywood knows that the public loves violent movies about heroism and combat and the military recognizes that Hollywood films are powerful tools for recruitment and public relations. The two entities frequently work together with the military allowing access to advisors and equipment and locations and Hollywood amending its scripts to portray the armed forces in a flattering light.

During the 9/11 era, Hollywood produced several movies that were unequivocally prowar. The films may have acknowledged the difficulty and sacrifice involved in these conflicts but they also affirmed the mission and extoled reverence for military service. Among the most blatant examples was 2012’s Act of Valor, a drama about a Navy SEAL team fighting terrorists. The movie featured actual SEALs among its cast. Other war dramas included 12 Strong and Lone Survivor. 2020’s The Outpost was an intense action picture about the Battle of Kamdesh which was one of the bloodiest battles during the war in Afghanistan.

While dramatic films about Afghanistan were generally quite supportive of soldiers and the war effort, movies about Iraq took a more downbeat approach. The Hurt Locker was a drama about a bomb squad and the risks they take defusing improvised explosive devices. Green Zone was about the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and although it was highly fictionalized Green Zone distilled the major scandals and mistakes of the occupation into a single feature film. Among the most unpleasant of these films was Redacted which was based on the true story of soldiers who sexually assaulted an Iraqi girl and murdered her family. It’s notable that every one of these downbeat Iraq films failed at the box office.

The most successful combat film to come out of the 9/11 era was Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Based on Chris Kyle’s memoir, the movie was about his tours in Iraq as well as Kyle’s struggles with post-traumatic stress.It fictionalized key details of Kyle’s life and military service but American Sniper did so in a way that gave the audience what it wants from this kind of military picture.That calculation paid off handsomely; going to see American Sniper became a political gesture and it is one of the highest grossing R-rated movies.

Combat movies about Afghanistan and Iraq were not limited to dramatic films. Among the most notable pictures about the war in Afghanistan was the 2010 documentary Restrepo and its 2014 companion piece Korengal, both directed by Sebastian Junger. The films documented American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley and captured their daily lives as well as their thoughts after returning from combat. Taken together, Restrepo and Korengal are some of the most indispensable films made about the Afghanistan War.

Most of these combat films were about boots on the ground but one the distinguishing aspects of the 9/11 era and the War on Terror is the use of airstrikes delivered by drones. This technique was widespread but it was also controversial with detractors claiming that drone strikes killed many civilians and thereby drove more people into terrorist organizations. The 2015 feature film Eye in the Sky dramatized drone warfare in a way that accounted for moral and strategic considerations. It was a complex portrait of modern warfare that also upended some of the conventions of the war genre. Eye in the Sky hasn’t gotten the recognition that it deserves but it is one of the best war pictures to come out of the 9/11 era.

Survivor Dramas

Throughout the pantheon of 9/11 moviemaking, there has been a lot of emphasis on terrorism and counterterrorism and the United States’ violent retaliation to the attack. But one aspect that’s been underplayed in the oeuvre of 9/11 dramas has been the experience of survivors. It’s a curious omission since survivors, either immediate or tangential, represent the biggest group touched by the terrorist attack and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But a few films have attempted to cope with the grief and trauma of 9/11, among them Reign Over Me. This 2007 drama was about a man, played by Adam Sandler, who lost his family in the 9/11 attack. He reconnects with an old friend, played by Don Cheadle, and they heal the emotional gaps and dissatisfactions in each other’s lives.

A similar title was 2009’s The Messenger. This movie followed a troubled Iraq War veteran, played by Ben Foster, who has been assigned to casualty notification duty. He and a fellow soldier, played by Woody Harrelson, have the unenviable task of informing loved ones that their family member has been killed. The shared grief between the soldiers and the survivors leads to some reconciliation. It’s a delicate movie but it’s handled perfectly.

As addressed earlier in the show, part of the act of storytelling is extrapolating or imposing meaning on events through narrative. Oliver Stone’s 2006 film World Trade Center was another movie dramatizing the 9/11 attack but it was largely the story of a rescue. Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña play firefighters who become trapped in the rubble after the towers collapse and the picture focuses on their struggle to survive and the effort to retrieve them. It’s a movie about community and fellowship in reaction to tragedy. In much the same way that Munich was uncharacteristically dark and morally ambiguous for Steven Spielberg, World Trade Center was surprisingly optimistic and soulful for Oliver Stone.

This collection of films about grief, trauma, and recovery in the aftermath of 9/11 was joined by 2021’s Worth. The film dramatizes the administration of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund which provided payouts to the bereaved on the condition that they give up the right to sue the airlines for the deaths of their loved ones. The picture is partly about the collective trauma of 9/11 and how that shared trauma leads to profound connections between people. Worth leaves viewers with an appropriately hopeful conclusion that points to shared humanity and community. In the genre of 9/11 films, such portraits are far outweighed by the fury of violent retribution. But now that the Afghanistan War has ended, perhaps bringing the 9/11 era to a close, stories about restoration and recovery aren’t just novel, they are necessary. 

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