Monday, May 2, 2011

5 Movies that Responded to 9/11 (when no one else would)

It goes without saying now, but when 9/11 happened, the entire world, including Hollywood, freaked the fuck out. Soon after the attacks, Spider-Man re-edited it’s trailer, Training Day, despite its L.A. setting, pushed back its release, Ben Stiller erased a shot of the Twin Towers from Zoolander, Men in Black II had to rewrite its entire ending, and so on.

But once the dust began to settle, one thing became clear: people wanted their entertainment.  In the months following 9/11, comedies, action flicks and family films all saw a massive surge in box office business.  People were tired of recycled news clips and talking heads and whispers of war; they were tired, in short, of reality.

After a year or so, the debate started: at what point is “too soon” not too soon?  When can we make a movie about 9/11, or at least one about its lasting effects?  Hollywood steered clear, independent financing for small films fell through, and, perhaps most importantly, commercial audiences remained pleasantly vacant from reality, at least while inside the cozy boundaries of a movie theatre.

Then, with one audacious stroke of genius, Spike Lee released 25th Hour, the first narrative film to not only acknowledge the events of 9/11 but to actually have its characters placed in a post-9/11 world.  Say what you will about Spike Lee (yeah, he’s kind of an asshole), but what he did with 25th Hour can never be overlooked.  Incase current events have any of you feeling nostalgic, here are a few other post-9/11 films that deserve to be remembered and revisited.

25th Hour (2002)
I’ve only just touched on the power this film carries.  From its extended opening credit sequence, in which Terrance Blanchard’s gorgeous horned instruments thunder over shots of the Twin Towers spotlight memorial, we know we’re in for something jarring. 

I’ll never forget the first time I saw this movie.  I stared wide-eyed as Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman walked over to a window in Pepper’s hot-shit apartment, a crane shot slowly revealing the holes left by the vacant Twin Towers below.  And I leaned forward, jaw hung open, as Edward Norton ferociously screamed “Fuck You” to Osama bin Laden and “backward-ass cave-dwelling fundamentalist assholes everywhere.”

25th Hour is a masterpiece, its bold and frank handle on 9/11 is just the beginning.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Much like Spike Lee (and a few other artists on this list), you can say what you will about Michael Moore.  For the record, I’m not terribly fond of Michael Moore, the man, but I can’t deny the talent that lies in Michael Moore, the filmmaker.

Conservatives found Fahrenheit 9/11 cheap and biased, and I agree with that to a point.  Give me 400 hours of footage on any one person (seriously, anyone) and I can edit the footage to make that person look like a fumbling moron.  While you may or may not agree with Moore’s politics, Fahrenheit 9/11 was a revelation to the documentary genre.  It quickly become the highest grossing documentary of all time (and the only one to pass the $100 million mark), and helped several on-the-fencers quickly decide who they’d vote for come November.

The result obviously didn’t work the way Moore hoped, but the movie, needless to say, caused one hell of a stir.

United 93 (2006)
When the teaser trailer for United 93 was released, theatres were filled with vile screams of “Too Soon!” while others threatened protests and bans.  But once Paul Greengrass’s film debuted at the Tribecca Film Festival in the spring of 2006, the idle threats ceased, and people took United 93 for what it was: a frank, cinema vérité examination of what happened on the fateful plane that never reached its targeted destination.

Greengrass did the story right: he used completely unknown actors (or in many cases, cast people as themselves), shot in gritty handheld, didn’t overly dramatize it or try to create a hero; he showed it like it was, or at least, like we can assume.

Soon after I saw United 93, which was the most gut-wrenching theatre-going experience I’ve ever had, I told people it was the most suspenseful, honest film I’d ever seen, a statement I stick by today.

Make no mistake, United 93 is not easy viewing, it’s real and raw and down to the bone.  But that’s the way it needed to be done.  That’s the only way it could have been done.

World Trade Center (2006)
If United 93 is the unflinching, blunt realization of the events of 9/11, then Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is its warm and fuzzy counterpart. That isn’t a knock (well, not entirely), because World Trade Center does succeed in many areas.  All of the main principals involved, including Stone, his screenwriter, and his actors, do John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno’s story of survival a great justice. 

The film is a heartwarming and endearing take on the best of human nature, set on a day that showed the worst of human nature.  World Trade Center may have been too glorified for some viewers, but for others, that’s exactly the kind of delicate touch they needed.

Rescue Me (2004-2011)
Denis Leary’s often remarkable, always unwavering television show about firefighters pulling shifts in a post-9/11 New York City, can often come off as brash as its creator.  Which, if you’ve tuned in during the show’s six season run, ain’t always a good thing.

Rescue Me hasn’t always been great - or hell, even that good - but it’s always been honest and upfront about the world it inhabits.  Desperately trying to chase away his Ground Zero nightmares with booze and broads, Tommy Gavin (Leary) is one of contemporary television’s best, most flawed characters.   

Leary, through his writing and acting, has always kept the show grounded.  And although he promises that the series’ finale this September will be “funny, dramatic, shocking and satisfying,” I’ll be sad to see it go.  Honestly, who better than Denis Leary to remind us all to reflect, and dare not forget?


  1. I'm so glad that you mentioned 25th hour. In addition to being a great film in its own right, it deserves a ton of credit for refusing to ignore the effects of 9/11. I especially loved that it didn't make 9/11 a major plot element, but rather is a side story that in one way or another effected all of the main characters.

  2. Completely agree. Spike Lee and David Benioff did a great job adapting Benioff's pre-9/11 novel into a post-9/11 screenplay.

  3. Apologies for going all arty on ya here, but I'd like to share my favourite thing ever dedicated to 9/11. It's a film/musical experiment by ambient musician William Basinski who filmed from his Brooklyn rooftop the final hour of daylight on September 11, and played over it his one-hour ambient piece "The Disintegration Loop 1.1" or just "dlp 1.1" which was created inadvertently by transferring a decades-old musical cassette tape recording to digital and capturing the sound of the tape slowly melting to nothing, making it appear the disintegration is part of the music itself. As an incredible five-second loop slowly breaks up into a hollow shell of itself, it's absolutely heartbreaking to see it juxtaposed with the sun setting over the New York skyline still billowing with smoke. It's one of the most powerful things I've ever experienced. Check it out here if you wish:

    Oh and by the way, I'm enjoying going through the old And So It Begins archives; you always have been my favourite blogger.

    1. Holy hell, that was gorgeous man. Wow. Really, just incredible. And your intro to what I was seeing and hearing made it all the better. Thanks so much for posting the link, and for such a kind compliment.

      Miss hearing your blogging voice, my friend!