Stephen Arnell

10 films about September 11th

10 films about September 11th
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty, Image: Shutterstock
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It will soon be 20 years since the horrific events of September 11th, 2001. Most who are old enough will recall the attacks, witnessing them in real time as they unfolded live on TV.

The notion that American Airlines Flight 11’s collision into the World Trade Center’s North Tower was some sort of tragic accident was rapidly disabused when the South tower was hit by United Airlines Flight 175 shortly afterwards. A third plane was crashed into the Pentagon; the fourth strike, which probably targeted the U.S. Capitol Building, only averted by the heroic action of the passengers.

The attacks have naturally prompted movies and TV series dealing with events leading to 9/11, the day itself and its continuing aftermath.

The towers themselves also featured as a foreshadowing coda to Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) and Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005).

On TV, Hulu’s miniseries The Looming Tower (2018) is generally felt to be the best accounting of the US intelligence failures and agency rivalries that contributed to the calamity.

Prior to 9/11, terrorist attacks on the USS Cole (2000) and the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 were the subject of the TV movies The Cole Conspiracy (2005) and Path to Paradise (1997).

Here are ten pictures that touch on the tragedy in vastly different ways:

The Mauritanian (2021) Amazon Prime

This is the harrowing true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahir Rahim), a Mauritanian national suspected of terrorism, held for fourteen years (2002 to 2016) without charge in Guantanamo military prison.

Based in part on Slahi’s Guantanamo Diary (2015), the movie details the long years of enhanced interrogation he endured before falsely confessing when his mother was threatened. Not an easy watch, but one buoyed by some fine acting, particularly from Rahim, who was nominated in the Best Actor category by BAFTA and The Golden Globes.

If you enjoyed (possibly the wrong word) The Mauritanian, you may want to check out 2007’s Rendition, based on the case of Khalid El-Masri, who was detained and ill-treated when mistaken for Khalid al-Masri, suspected as one of the 9/11 organisers.

The Report (2019) Amazon Prime

Another legal exposé of US covert behaviour post 9/11, The Report follows the quest by Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver) to lead Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (Annette Bening) investigation into the 2005 destruction of CIA tapes depicting enhanced interrogation sessions with al-Qaeda suspects and others.

As you have probably gathered, The Report is hardly breezy entertainment, demanding the viewer’s attention as it delves into the murky intersection between Washington politics, CIA machinations and freelancing ‘intelligence psychologists’.

In addition to Driver and Bening, an exceptional cast includes Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Douglas Hodge, Matthew Rhys and Jon Hamm.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) ICON, Amazon Rent/Buy

Another case of guilt by association in Mira Nair’s earnest adaptation of Moshin Hamed's novel. Riz Ahmed plays Changez, a Pakistani academic and would-be Wall Street player whose love of the US is shaken by his treatment post 9/11.

Airport strip searches, arrests and career failure appear to be pushing him in the direction of radical Islam, at least in the eyes of CIA field officer Bobby Lincoln (the always intimidating Liev Schreiber).

When an American professor at Lahore University is kidnapped, Lincoln is sure that Changez is involved…

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

Kathryn Bigelow’s (The Hurt Locker) follows the protracted hunt for Osama Bin Laden after 9/11.

The director brings her usual kinetic touch to the proceedings, with Jessica Chastain heading a stellar company as a fictionalised CIA analyst who puts the clues together to locate the al-Qaeda leader’s Abbottabad (Pakistan) compound.

Zero Dark Thirty’s presumed ambivalence about ‘approved’ torture interrogation techniques caused some controversy on the picture’s release, although Bigelow denied that it was her intent to portray the practice in a positive light.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) Amazon Rent/Buy

The viewer exhausted by incessant torture scenes may heave a sigh of relief at my next entry, Stephen Daldry’s (Billy Elliott) version of Jonathan Safran Foer’s popular magical realism novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Unfortunately, this manipulative tale of a boy’s search for meaning after his father (Tom Hanks) is killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11 is not a suitable palate cleanser.

By turns mawkish and exploitative, the picture earned some crushing reviews; one for fans of the book only, I suspect, but Extremely Loud does possess the virtue of presenting a non-adult perspective on the trauma induced by the attack.

Max von Sydow, John Goodman and Jeffrey Wright doubtless received generous pay checks justifying their participation in EL&IC.

Remember Me (2010) Amazon Rent/Buy

An early attempt by R-Patz to escape the straitjacket of his then Twilight thraldom, Remember Me is a strained drama about conflicted arty (and non-arty) Manhattanites, which has the gall to use the 9/11 attack as a punchline to the onscreen histrionics.

Pattinson fortunately succeeded in branching out from the YA world with the well-received art house movies Cosmopolis (2012), The Road (2014) and The Lost City of Z (2016).

United 93 (2006) Amazon Rent/Buy

Paul Greengrass’s jumpy Bourne directorial style is well-suited to this emotionally draining recounting of the doomed flight where passengers overcame the plane’s terrorist hijackers, forcing it to crash in an empty Pennsylvanian field. None survived.

A non-starry cast lent veracity to the picture, which is never going to be the kind of movie you wind down with after a long day at work.

The depiction of German passenger Christian Adam as a pacifist favouring reasoning with the hijackers was problematic, not least to his widow, Silk.  Writing in the Sunday Times, Cosmo Landesman mused: 'Surely one of the passengers didn't phone home to point out that there was a cowardly German on board who wanted to give in?'

DC 9/11: Time of Crisis (2003) – full movie available free on YouTube

A quick turnaround TV movie, DC 9/11: Time of Crisis sought to see the events of 9/11 sympathetically from the viewpoint of President George W. Bush.

Not unexpectedly, non-Bush supporters regarded the picture as a whitewash which credited #43 with a capacity for strategic and tactical analysis which probably was not his strong suit.

Veteran actor Timothy Bottoms (The Last Picture Show, The Paper Chase) played Bush – his third time in the role after the sitcom That’s My Bush! (2001) and comedy movie The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002).

Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story (2003) full movie available free on YouTube

File under ‘hasn’t aged well’; this USA Network semi-hagiography of Rudy Giuliani (once known as ‘America’s Mayor’) has been tainted in some eyes by his antics over recent years.

Ukrainian ‘investigations’, ‘trial by combat’ on 6th January, The Big Lie, melting hair dye, Borat-related trouser mishaps and the Four Seasons Landscaping fiasco have all made the former NY mayor a tarnished figure, at least to the non-MAGA crowd.

But…there was a brief time on 9/11 and the following weeks that Rudy was an inspiring figure to the US, even though he reportedly located the city’s emergency command HQ in the World Trade Center itself.

James Woods, nowadays a figure more known for his intemperate tweets than his acting, plays Giuliani.

25th Hour (2002) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

Released a little over a year after 9/11, Spike Lee’s drama earned the filmmaker some of the best reviews of his career. Which might be a surprise, as the source material was the debut novel of the same name by David Benioff, chiefly known as one half of the showrunning duo (along with DB Weiss) who penned the disastrous final season of Game of Thrones.

Post 9/11 New York is the setting for convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan’s final day of freedom before serving seven years in the NY state Otisville Federal Correctional Institution.

At the time of the picture’s release, Lee spoke of making the first post-September 11 NY movie: 'We weren't in a race to be the first. We just wanted to do what we could do -- not wave the flag, but at the same time not run away from the opportunity. The combative attitude of New Yorkers hasn't gone. That's always going to be the spirit of New York.'

Ed Norton plays Monty, and as with Lee, proved a critical success; his anti-everyone ‘Five Boroughs’ rant is now part of cinematic lore.

As ever, this is a personal selection of motion pictures that use 9/11 as a theme/backdrop; you may also want to take in the likes of Vice (2018), Reign Over Me (2007), Brick Lane (2007), World Trade Center (2006), and The Hamburg Cell (2004).