Ten Years Later: Categorizing the 9/11 Films

Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, in the comparatively minor realm of movies, one question pervaded the entire industry: When is it OK to make a movie about 9/11, and who will dare be the one to break the ice?

It took a long time to directly touch that hallowed topic on screen, and while filmmakers have since made movies about certain aspects of that day, there has to date been no attempt to make an all-encompassing film; there has been no movie titled September 11, 2001, and whether there will ever be that comprehensive, perhaps definitive project is an interesting topic worthy of its own debate. But what we’re going to take a look at instead is the way, er, ways Hollywood has handled 9/11 in the 10 years that have gone by—a period that feels, oddly, like both yesterday and a million years ago.

Sentimental, Safe Story of Heroism: World Trade Center


When it was announced that Oliver Stone, the outspoken contrarian of almost all things United States of America, would be directing one of the first real dramatizations of (one aspect of) 9/11, it struck fear in some, nervous anticipation in others: How will he treat the tragedy, and what will his slant be?

No one EVER expected him to handle the subject matter with kid gloves, and that’s when Stone reminded us that he will invariably do the opposite of whatever the expectations are of him as a filmmaker. To the surprise of most, World Trade Center was a glossy gloss-over of the Twin Towers on 9/11, a story not really of fallen people or buildings but of a pair of heroic survivors who nonetheless were worthy of cinematic immortalization. Five years after its release, WTC still plays like a safe, overly sentimental, borderline uncompelling TV movie—but five years ago, it served a purpose, filling a void. And there’s no doubt that someday, when 9/11 becomes a lucrative subgenre, Stone’s tameness will actually be a longed-for quality.

No-Holds-Barred Docudrama: United 93


The antithesis of World Trade Center (and released just a few months before it), Paul Greengrass’ United 93 excluded absolutely nothing about the doomed title flight, except for a climactic “movie” plane crash – and that’s only because the director so adeptly brought viewers on the plane, in real time, that such cinematic-ness, so to speak, would’ve been almost as disturbing as the movie itself. Bold, impartial, factual, horrifying, exhilarating, heartfelt, audacious, uncomfortable … no amount of adjectives could ever do Greengrass’ emotion-stirring masterpiece justice, precisely like the day on which his film is set.

No-Holds-Barred Documentary: Fahrenheit 9/11


Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, about Sept. 11 and President George W. Bush’s response to it, is the highest-grossing documentary of all time. Virtually no other statement can be made about the film that doesn’t ignite some type of a war of words—and that, rather than the truths or falsehoods dispensed by Moore in the movie, was the true value of Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004: It shattered the ice in which Sept. 11 was encased and got people talking arguing again, a sort of perverse American normalcy.

Movies with a 9/11 Subplot: Reign Over MeRemember Me


Some films opted, neither cowardly nor bravely, to implement a 9/11 subplot rather than tackling it head-on. Two such films of the high-profile variety are Reign Over Me and Remember Me. The former features Adam Sandler giving the most surprising performance of his career – even more so than that seen in Punch Drunk Love – playing a man who we ultimately learn is still suffering from the loss of his family on 9/11, five months after. The latter is a melodrama that uses 9/11 as the story’s endpoint, preceded by attempted lessons on love and loss. Neither film made waves critically or commercially, but they’re interesting footnotes on the sheer dearth of mainstream movies with even the loosest 9/11 tie-in over the past 10 years.


If one is so inclined, a tenuous link to 9/11 can be found in countless movies in the decade since; a ‘9/11’ list could theoretically go on much longer and include everything from Iraq War movies to anything involving even the most cartoonish form of terrorism. But some movies stick out as having slightly stronger connections to that day, even if they’re more implicit than explicit. Here are a few examples.

Man on Wire: This Oscar-winning documentary about high-wire walker Phillippe Petit has nothing much to do with 9/11, but it is made all the more fascinating by the Twin Towers, literally there in the backdrop all along; they comprise the steadiest costar any movie could ask for, lending a most bittersweet performance as we all know their present-day fate the whole way through.

War of the Worlds: Steven Spielberg’s was pure popcorn fare – and yet it also wasn’t. The director himself admitted that 9/11 factored into his interest in making the movie, and there was direct linkage between the fear and paranoia of that day and the grand-scale fear and paranoia evoked and depicted in War of the Worlds.

25th HourDavid Benioff did a marvelous job adapting his own pre-9/11 novel for the big screen, and the result was a movie – directed by Spike Lee – that took care to use post-9/11 NYC as a setting instead of a heavy-handed theme. The film also features a striking, memorable shot of the World Trade Center’s Tribute in Light.