Revisiting Sept. 11 in Film

I woke up this morning, like so many people around the world, thinking about New York on Sept. 11, 2001. And I wanted to share with you an essay I wrote two years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, examining how the twin towers had been depicted in film.

Discussing how to be respectful almost seems moot at this point. Blockbusters like “Man of Steel” show strangers grabbing each others’ hands and scurrying through the streets, trying to dodge giant chunks of falling buildings, all for the sake of summer thrills. But for many years, finding the right tone was a challenge. Here’s a look back.

Twin towers erased from some films after 9/11

But some filmmakers, like Spike Lee, wouldn’t dream of editing out the iconic buildings


On Sept. 11, 2001, I was living in New York, covering entertainment and reviewing films for The Associated Press. I had a typically random, frivolous day planned: a screening of “The Glass House”; an interview with Carson Daly; and a hair appointment to get my highlights touched up.

None of that happened.

But I’ll never forget the title of the movie that was in my calendar that day, a thriller starring Leelee Sobieski. For many of us critics, “The Glass House” ended up being the first movie we saw once we struggled to return to reality after the attacks, and its manufactured scares seemed so cheap and crass compared to the real horrors we’d all just witnessed.

Approaching entertainment in general, and movies specifically — especially those set and shot in New York with images of the twin towers — was a tricky proposition in the weeks and months following 9/11. There was, of course, the broader question: When is it appropriate to enjoy ourselves again? But studios debated how to be respectful in releasing films that featured images of those iconic, fallen buildings. They wanted to strike the right tone, but there didn’t seem to be a right answer.

The twin towers were so instantly recognizable, so majestic and evocative. In a movie such as “Working Girl,” they’re a beacon of promise; in the classic poster for Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” they even form the letter H. Do you eradicate them entirely to avoid upsetting the audience? Or do you leave them in, because they existed when the film was being made?

“Glitter” is probably best-known now as a laughably self-serving star vehicle for Mariah Carey. But it happened to come out just 10 days after the terrorist attacks, and included a couple of shots in which the twin towers are visible in the background. At a screening in a Times Square multiplex, those images drew the only cheers and applause.

Then there was the comedy “Zoolander,” directed by and starring Ben Stiller, which came out Sept. 28. The towers were erased from the finished print, which was jarring. A scene in which Derek Zoolander gives the eulogy at a funeral for his male model roommates, who die in a gasoline explosion inexplicably played for laughs, also struck an awkward note, especially with the New York City skyscrapers gleaming behind the cemetery.

The romantic comedy “Serendipity,” starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, was released less than a month after 9/11, but it takes place in a Manhattan that is so idyllic, so romantic, it probably never existed. Shots of the World Trade Center in a version that screened at the Toronto International Film Festival were excised after the attacks for maximum movie-going happiness.

Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Collateral Damage” was postponed from an October 2001 release to the following February; even though it takes place in Los Angeles, it’s about a terrorist plot to blow up buildings. It was the most high-profile example of Hollywood’s attempt to be sensitive, even though “Collateral Damage” was, in retrospect, just another big, loud, dumb Schwarzenegger movie.

But as time went on, filmmakers began feeling their way around the tragedy with what appeared to be a bit more comfort and confidence. The police drama “City by the Sea,” starring Robert De Niro and James Franco, came out on Sept. 6, 2002. It had been filmed all over New York City in early 2001 and contains several prominent images of the World Trade Center towers. This struck a somber chord upon the one-year anniversary of the attacks, a time when the city collectively was on edge once more, and sent a ripple through the screening I attended. Still, I was glad to see the towers remain in the film, because that was an accurate reflection of what the city looked like during production.

A few months later, we had “25th Hour,” one of my favorite movies of that year and one of Spike Lee’s best. Naturally, being a filmmaker who personifies New York, Lee wouldn’t dream of avoiding the attacks. His unflinching title sequence focuses on the downtown skyline as it appeared around the one-year anniversary, with two beams of light stretching skyward from the spot where the towers had stood.

Later, Edward Norton’s character visits his father at the bar he owns in Staten Island — a firefighter hangout with memorials on the walls to the men who died. And Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman have a long conversation in front of a picture window in Pepper’s high-rise apartment, which overlooks ground zero. Hoffman asks whether Pepper plans to move, since the air quality downtown is so bad.

“(Bleep) that, man,” Pepper responds. “Bin Laden could drop in next door — I ain’t movin’.”

Five years after the attacks, Oliver Stone approached the towers head-on with “World Trade Center,” starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as a pair of Port Authority police officers trapped beneath the rubble of the collapsed towers. The prevailing wisdom was that Stone would inject some pointed political perspective in depicting this tragedy; instead, he offered an exceptionally crafted, strongly acted, high-end made-for-TV movie. It’s visceral and intense, exceedingly faithful in its depiction of the fear and chaos, the ash and smoke that enveloped New York that day.

Eventually, the buildings again became a welcome sight. James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire” (2008) traces tightrope-walker Philippe Petit’s death-defying high-wire act between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.

The film is hugely engrossing, but it also harkens to a simpler, more innocent time. A skywalk such as the one Petit pulled off would be impossible today; security is too tight and too pervasive in every segment of our daily lives. And that’s because of what happened on Sept 11, 2001 — a date that never arises in “Man on Wire” because Marsh wisely realizes he doesn’t need to mention it. The absence of the towers — and the reason for their absence — is implicit throughout the film, which adds a level of unspoken yet inescapable poignancy.

7 Comments on “Revisiting Sept. 11 in Film

  1.  by  Lindsay Nelson

    Thanks for this. Watching the aftermath of 9/11 play out from Tokyo, it was always strange (and kind of touching) to me to see repeated images of the twin towers (they pop up in a lot of Japanese films and TV shows and were never edited out). And I vividly remember the debates over when to leave them in and when to edit them out, and how 25th Hour and Man on Wire had an even bigger impact on me in that context.

  2.  by  Christy Lemire

    Lindsay, thank you for reading it, and for your perspective. That must be surreal to be living abroad when something of this enormity happens back home.

  3.  by  Ramesh Santanam

    If memory serves, they also re-edited the trailer for SPIDER-MAN, which initially had Spidey weaving a web between the Twin Towers. Have you seen SEPTEMBER 11? Came out in 2002. A compilation of 11 films by 11 filmmakers – Sean Penn, Shohei Imamura, Ken Loach, Mira Nair, Claude Lelouch et al; each film 11 minutes and 9 seconds long. Not all of them are good, but, as a whole, certainly thought provoking. I’m partial to Loach’s work in general and admired his take, which was about the Sept. 11, 1973, Pinochet coup.

  4.  by  JozieLee

    God Bless those souls who left us way too soon.

    Whenever I see the Twin Towers in a movie I want to pause and glory in their beauty.

    Nice article, Christy.

  5.  by  Todd

    Thanks for the article…hadn’t thought about it this way.

    On a slightly different subject, United 93 is still one of my favorite movies of the last 10 years.

  6.  by  Lindsay Nelson

    Spider-man, yes, I remember the hurried editing of that trailer!

    I’m kind of fascinated by how film / TV / even commercials choose to deal with tragic events. After the 2011 tsunami Japanese ad agencies scrambled to re-do any commercials that featured beaches or big waves (and there were a lot of those). For a couple of weeks there was only one set of commercials airing on TV–very sober ones for an insurance company, none of the usual crazy anime and people running around in animal costumes.

    And then at some point film / TV / commercials will start capitalizing on tragedies–others have pointed out that there’s a lot of 9/11 imagery in recent action films. I remember people complaining about it in War of the Worlds (scenes of people looking through photos of missing loved ones a la Ground Zero). I’m sure somewhere someone’s written a paper about the edit out –> insert delicately –> use prominently pattern.

  7.  by  Jamie Insalaco

    So many movies start with shots of the World Trade Center to establish New York, but for some reason, the two that stick with me are from Godfather 3 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989)