When sociologist and philosopher Michel de Certeau climbed the World Trade Center to view New York he did so to remove himself from the city, so as to make sense of its enormity and component parts. He wrote:
Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. Beneath the haze stirred up by the winds, the urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea, lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sinks down at Greenwich, then rises again to the crests of Midtown, quietly passes over Central Park and finally undulates off into the distance beyond Harlem. A wave of verticals. Its agitation is momentarily arrested by vision. The gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes. (The Practice of Everyday Life)
The image is arresting, not least for its location. New York is the meeting point between the intimate and the epic, an almost miraculous mastery of space that is practically impossible to truly appreciate from ground level. The fact that de Certeau’s observations come from the viewing deck of the World Trade Center is stirring; as both an icon of urban supremacy and – in the wake of its eventual fate – catastrophe, the World Trade Center looms in the cultural imagination as monument to both our species’ triumphs and failures.
9/11 might be fast approaching its 15th anniversary but the aftershocks of that September morning in 2001 still reverberate throughout the world. Helped no end by similar events that have occurred since – Britain, France and Belgium often spring first to mind as the most widely covered, but let’s not forget less circulated incidents that have occurred, and continue to occur, in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and so forth – the hijackings and assaults on New York, and of course Northern Virginia, have had a profound effect on the world entire, not to mention popular media including film. As a vital icon of the New York skyline that featured prominently in innumerable films across their three decades – as such becoming a staple part of the cinematic urban imagination – the absence of the twin towers from subsequent images of New York draws the mind, time and time again, to the devastating loss of that day. Just as de Certeau utilised the World Trade Center in the act of seeing the city, so we may register the recognition of its absence as an act of remembrance – Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man famously had to address images of the towers in its skyline – with the void a potent reminder of the tragedy.
Rendering the events of 9/11 on film is a tricky business, and one that has produced a variety of different takes on the event. Five years after the event, in 2006, marked the first time that high-profile productions would tackle 9/11 head on. Paul Greengrass and Oliver Stone, two acclaimed directors, would each offer their skills in an attempt to dramatise the horrors of that day. Released mere months apart, Paul Greengrass’ United 93 came first to offer a stomach-churning and nerve-wrangling chamber piece set almost entirely on-board the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania after the passengers attempted to regain control from its hijackers. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center offered a different perspective, a meditative ode to the genuine heroics of the firefighters who attended the scene on the ground. As both films approach their 10th anniversary, we’ve decided to take a look at the various ways in which 9/11 has been portrayed on film.
Of the two films mentioned above, United 93 stands apart. While this writer by no means wishes to discredit the heroics on show in Stone’s film, the documentary-style approach in United 93 makes for far more compelling viewing than Stone’s nationalistic chest-thumping. Interestingly, neither film chose to directly depict the iconic destruction of the World Trade Center – of course, they would not have been able to compete with the genuine horror of footage from the day, and attempts to do so would have been crass. Instead, both films centralise the first-hand experiences of the day, creating spectacles of small acts of human bravery, not the disaster itself. In a small way, these more intimate approaches stand as a triumph over the atrocities of that day; an unbroken cry echoing from the wreckages that promises that the city will persevere. The final, excruciating 10 minutes of United 93 are a sobering reminder of what can be achieved in defeat. Despite the crushing inevitability of its ending – the sad fact that the plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field, killing all 44 passengers – the heroics stand as testament to the truth that bravery has its roots in everybody, and that a unifying act of resilience bears more power than any act of terrorism can muster.
Other films have touched upon the day’s legacy by considering both the effect that it has had on the individual and society as a whole. Mike Binder’s 2007 film Reign Over Me dealt with the psychological effects of living through and losing loved ones to such a trauma. While the script is a little on the nose, the film provided Adam Sandler with one of his stronger dramatic roles, and touches upon the loss felt throughout the city, throughout the nation, and throughout the world. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close similarly follows a young boy coming to terms with the loss of his father. Other films have more explicitly dwelt upon the national legacy of the event, not least Michael Moore’s controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 which documents the circumstances surrounding the Iraq War that quickly followed the attack. Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty explores the bureaucratic and moral maze that surrounded the pursuit and assassination of chief instigator Osama bin Laden. While Bigelow’s film is uncompromising in its depiction of US interrogation tactics, it remains an elaborately weaved and undeniably tense piece of cinema and sits alongside United 93 as one of the best films to have dealt with 9/11 and its aftermath.
Elsewhere, documentary Man on Wire reclaims the World Trade Center’s iconicity by registering it as a site of personal triumph and not one that is solely associated with devastating loss. While James Marsh’s heartfelt documentary on Philippe Petit’s wire-walk between the towers does not dwell on the fate of the World Trade Center, it is nevertheless haunted by its legacy. Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk might have been a sturdy but forgettable retread of the story, but contributes to Man on Wire‘s efforts to reclaim the towers’ image. Just as early iterations of Godzilla used the monster to depict the devastating effects of nuclear war on an urban population, J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield focused on the ground-level horrors of 9/11 with handheld camerawork capturing both the frenzy and the ways in which the shocking incident was documented throughout the day. The monster-in-the-city metaphor for 9/11 has reared its head more latently since in the city-levelling antics of superhero blockbusters such as The Dark Knight trilogy, The Avengers, and Zack Snyder’s Superman films. Most recently, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice reimagined Man of Steel’s fiery showdown from the ground level, invoking 9/11 not only in the imagery of its large-scale carnage but also in Batman’s bloodthirsty response.
The terrorist attacks that occurred on 9/11 are without question one of the defining historical moments of the last half century. From sensitively drawn accounts of the actual day to its influence on a wider iconography of urban destruction in summer blockbusters, its legacy on film is both profound and enduring.