An Event “Like a Movie”? Hollywood and 9/11

Christina Rickli

In the aftermath of 9/11, the claim that the attacks seemed “like a movie” has become commonplace.1 By this simile, eyewitnesses, pundits, and the average American television newscast spectator alluded to a very specific type of movie: a disaster film made in Hollywood. It might be argued that “like a movie” is a mere expression—formed by cultural and linguistic convention—that has no influence on the processing of the events. Nonetheless, if the phrase “like a movie” is taken literally, intriguing questions follow. What aspects inherent to 9/11—both in form and content—may have prompted the comparison of the assaults and their visual representation to Hollywood disaster films? How did the American movie industry react to 9/11 and the claim of a resemblance of the attacks to fiction film? What strategies does Hollywood apply regarding representation of the events of September 11, 2001? And last but not least: Does the production of fiction films about 9/11 nullify the claim that the attacks were “like a movie”—thereby restoring a sense of reality to the witnessed attacks?

First Responses

Shortly after the attacks, one of the most celebrated American directors, the late Robert Altman, stated: “The movies set the pattern, and the people have copied the movies […]. Nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that [the attack on the World Trade Center] unless they’d seen it in a movie” (qtd. in Bell-Metereau 143). Thus, Altman, who positions himself as an outsider to Hollywood, regarded the dream factory as having inspired the terrorist mindset to plan such a grand-scale act by providing blueprints in various blockbuster movies. However, also insiders to Hollywood were quick to acknowledge the resemblance of 9/11 to their own creations. Jonathan Hensleigh, the scriptwriter of Armageddon, states that, while watching television on September 11, he was instantly reminded of the endtimes’ setting he had envisioned: “When it actually does happen and you’re watching it on CNN, frankly, it gives you the creeps.” (qtd. in Kahane 115). Susannah Radstone quotes Steve de Souza, the director of Die Hard: “[T]he image of the terrorist attacks ‘looked like a movie poster, like one of my movie posters” (119). Film experts were not the only ones to resort to cinematic examples that they remembered when confronted with the events of September 11.

Already on the day of the attacks, the simile “like a movie” was voiced. One minute after the second plane hit, Jennifer Overstein, an eyewitness to both plane collisions with the towers of the World Trade Center, was asked to describe what she witnessed live on the NBC newscast. She exclaimed in a frantic voice: “It looks like a movie!” And a few seconds later she added: “I couldn’t believe my eyes, watching it right above me” (NBC News Coverage). Overstein, unable or unwilling to believe her own vision, does not retort back to imagery of nightmare, but to film. Wheeler Winston Dixon maintains that people claimed that witnessing 9/11 “was like watching a movie, simply because they had no other referent to fall back on in the face of such apocalyptic destruction” (9). However, the resemblance of 9/11 to film is not solely triggered by the displayed “apocalyptic destruction.” The use of “like a movie” hints at a psychological need to resort back to movie experience. Possibly, this strategy of ‘cinematic vision’ enabled Overstein and other eyewitnesses to distance themselves from the events and thereby ward off part of the traumatic impact of the witnessed scenes.

What was the situation for Americans who witnessed the attacks on television? Certainly, “like a movie” also afforded them to psychologically distance themselves from the attack that—although enacted at selected locations with highly symbolic value—obviously was directed towards the whole of American society. The framing of television allows drawing parallels between the news footage and a fiction film on the levels of the mise-en-scène, the creation of suspense via (continuity) editing, and aesthetics. American disaster films set the pattern for visual orchestrations of assaults on architectural structures of the size of the Twin Towers. Although the majority of American television spectators might have felt menaced by the attacks, they also felt drawn to repeatedly watch the footage of the burning and collapsing towers.

The eerie attraction of the footage might be due to the quality of the sublime incorporated into the aesthetics of the images. Immanuel Kant described the ‘Sublime’ as a feeling that upsurges when human beings are witness to a catastrophe from afar, without being in actual danger. This sublime emotion is eventually prompted by the human ability to abstract the witnessed danger from one’s immediate realm, thus to ascertain, by resorting to reason that, although the catastrophe is real, it does not directly endanger one’s life (144-45). I do not suggest that on September 11, 2001 American television viewers were constantly under the spell of the sublime aesthetics of the footage. The realization of the actual violence behind the images and the inclusion of eyewitness accounts ran contrary to the sublime aesthetics. However, the relative absence of carnage in the footage of the attacks may have lured American spectators into watching the endless repetitions of the sequences (the planes flying into the towers and the subsequent collapse of the buildings).

Immediate Reactions in Hollywood

While on television the looped material—uncensored except for the footage of people jumping from the Twin Towers—drilled the devastating memory of the attacks deeper and deeper into the American collective unconscious, an unprecedented (self-)censoring of Hollywood movies occurred in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Suddenly, the staging of a situation that might remind viewers of the attacks and that might be enjoyed due to its sublime aesthetics was deemed immoral. Every image that slightly reminded of the attacks was banished from both television and movie screens. In addition, the Twin Towers were digitally erased from movies produced prior to the attacks. A prominent case exemplifying how far this eradication of the iconic images of the towers went is the marketing of Spider-Man (2002). Although the towers are still visible in the film—albeit less prominently than in the edited film version pre-9/11—the World Trade Center was erased from the trailer as well as from the film’s advertisements. Harry Youtt recalls that a poster, which contained miniscule reflections of the World Trade Center towers in the glassy surface of Spider-Man’s mask’s eyes, was drawn from the market. Re-editing and censorship were obviously undertaken in order to concur with the sensitivities of people traumatized by the attacks.2 However, the repression of images did not meet with unanimous approval: “[S]ome audiences went so far as to boo scenes of the New York City skyline [with absent Twin Towers] in Zoolander, whereas in Glitter, ‘skyline shots that included the towers elicited spontaneous applause’” (Katherine Heintzelman qtd. in Schneider 39). Interestingly, the erasure of imagery of the towers from the movie screen ran parallel with a high demand for memorabilia that featured the Twin Towers, e.g. a “‘World Trade Center—We Won’t Forget’ snow globe with ashes swirling around two miniature WTC towers” (Sterrit 77).

Apart from re-editing films that were produced before the attacks, release schedules of films were altered. The perceived inappropriateness within the plots of Windtalkers, Training Day, and Spygame in the face of the recent catastrophe led to a postponed release of these films. The most prominent example of a film whose distribution was delayed is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Collateral Damage. The film was originally scheduled to premiere October 5, 2001. Its release was rescheduled to January 2002 (Thomsen 18). Oliver Stone included a hidden comment on the impact on Hollywood into his film World Trade Center by inserting a shot of a super-sized advertisement poster for Collateral Damage into the sequence that first announces the beginning of the terrorist attacks via the shadow of a low-flying jetliner that breaches the skyline of New York. The actual release of Collateral Damage fell into a time when the Pentagon pronounced the War on Terror in Afghanistan to be decided in favor of the American troops. Clearly, the time of mourning was over when Rudy Giuliani, the declared New York hero of September 11, attended a gala screening of Collateral Damage (Kitses 29). Jonathan Markovitz’s summary of the distribution history of Collateral Damage shows the transition from mourning and shock to a new-found desire to enjoy action films whose plot resembles the terrorist attacks of September 11:

Indeed, while he [Arnold Schwarzenegger] explained that the release date had been postponed out of respect for the victims of September 11, as early as October 5 he referenced to a long-standing audience fascination with terrorism and a desire to see punishment meted out. Schwarzenegger came close to suggesting that the attacks could actually boost ticket sales, explaining, ‘People enjoy these movies because they feel it could be real’ (202).

The depiction of Schwarzenegger’s character as a man in search of vengeance for his family’s killing in a terrorist attack may indeed have fostered interest in the movie.

Although movies that featured vengeance were repressed on a public scale, the demand for films that portray revenge plots did not decline in the weeks after September 11: “Even while industry leaders were eager to censor trauma-inducing images of any kind, video outlets reported that, when left to their own discretion, consumers were eagerly purchasing terrorist flicks like The Siege” (Spigel 236). The Siege is one of the most prominent examples mentioned as a filmic predecessor to September 11.3 A short analysis of the genre of terrorist movies such as The Siege may delineate the importance of this genre within American pop culture.

A Film Genre under Attack?

In an argument similar to the one of Robert Altman, Jean Baudrillard claims that a pool of American action and disaster movies had fostered a specifically American hyperreality that influenced imagery and ideas about global terrorism (17). This hyperreal setting of Hollywood movies had prepared the American imagination to expect a battle between evil terrorist forces against an intrinsically good and innocent victim. In American movies in general, the American under attack rises up and eventually defeats the perpetrator. Catharsis is offered via a successful hunt for the terrorists and a victory of the American hero. Via fabricating this cathartic plot, these films take on a ‘talisman-function.’ The films deal with abject fantasies and fears of an outside attack and avert the imminent danger in a globalized world by clearly positioning good versus evil in a fictitious, predetermined setting where the American side wins.

A direct comparison of ‘real’ terrorist attacks with filmic examples of massive terrorist attacks points to an obvious dilemma: Although the attacks parallel the sublime aesthetics, the mise-en-scène and the plot of American action/terrorist movies, September 11 was clearly not a movie. The reality of the physical, psychological, and economical destruction of that day and its aftermath was felt directly. The all too real events of 9/11 confronted the American public with a defective and thus unsettling reference to prototypical scenes of an important Hollywood genre. This real counterpart to a heretofore hyperreal referent did not follow the pattern the movies had set and therefore did not offer catharsis to the American people. David I. Grossvogel explains how disturbing this inherent dilemma to the 9/11 attacks was to the American television viewer:

A nation used to Hollywood’s replication of nightmarish destructions remained glued to television sets that drew it into the horror of an inescapable reality. Even though agonized viewers found their only metaphor in films, awareness of the thousands of deaths which the live images concealed made them aware of how empty was the analogy of special effects. (2)

The masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks must have known that their scheme would elicit a major response from the mass media and that the attacks would be instantly turned into a media event. The terrorist message that was transported in the looped footage of 9/11 is clear: Attacks of this scale on American soil could be repeated anytime by a faceless enemy that cannot be easily defeated. And no identifiable American superhero could prevent such assaults.

Appetite for Revenge

Shortly after the attacks, Joseph Adalian deliberated about whether audiences would ever be in the mood again for disaster or action films:

[It is] possible [audiences] may flock to shows where the good guys triumph over evil, particularly if the nation heads to war. Equally possible is that viewers may be in no mood to watch fictionalized versions of what they’ve seen so vividly in round-the-clock news coverage. (36)

Despite initial doubts, Hollywood, too, did not wait long to deliver tales that pointed towards revenge. Several films that were produced before September 11 were rushed into the cinemas. Black Hawk Down premiered in December 2001 instead of March 2002 and the release of Behind Enemy Lines was moved from January 2002 to November 2001 (Thomsen 19). Both movies narrate the rescue of American soldiers in enemy territory and how much effort is put in to save American life—which is clearly depicted as being more precious than the lives of the faceless, stereotyped foes. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down was commercially very successful: It earned 75 million dollars at the box office within the first three weeks after its release (Kitses 29). Dixon claims that the success of this film and comparable ones (like We Were Soldiers, or The Sum of All Fears) was due to “a renewed audience appetite for narratives of conflict, reminiscent of the wave of filmmaking that surrounded American involvement in World War II” (1). The psychological call to arms relied heavily on the depiction of American soldiers as the genuinely ‘good guys.’

9/11 in Hollywood Movies

Confronted with the ever-present images of the attacks, which were considered to look “like a movie,” several questions arose: How much time would have to pass by before the events of September 11 could be presented on the big screen without inciting accusations of exploiting the tragedy? How much artistic liberty with official timelines and stories would be permissable? What could a fictitious treatment of one of the most documented events in American history look like? Could original footage be inserted or even be reconstructed? Could (globo-)politics be ignored? An overview of the Hollywood films that do mention or depict the events of September 11, 2001 reflects the restricted approach the commercial film industry has chosen in its depiction of the attacks and their aftermath.

Until March 2009, six feature films have undertaken to present a direct reflection on 9/11. In 2003, 25th Hour premiered as the first American major film produced for movie theaters that referred extensively to the 9/11 attacks in its storyline (O’Neill 2). Another two years passed before the next film about 9/11 was in cinematic distribution. The Great New Wonderful, directed by Danny Leiner and featuring a cast of well-known American actors such as Maggie Gyllenhaal and Olympia Dukasis, depicts an explicitly post-9/11 New York. The film follows five New York characters that try to make sense of what has happened on September 11, 2001.4 For almost five years, American movie directors refrained from reenacting the events of the day of the attacks itself. In April 2006, United 93 by British director Paul Greengrass came into American movie theatres. The plot reconstructs the story of the fourth hijacked plane and its passengers. It was lauded for its effort not to make a typical Hollywood spectacle out of the destinies of the people who eventually died in the plane crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania (Gutman 161). In August 2006, World Trade Center by Oliver Stone premiered. It is based on the true story of two rescue workers who were saved after the collapse of the Twin Towers. Reign Over Me (2007) features the struggle of a character, played by Adam Sandler, who has lost his wife and children on September 11. Only slowly is the fate of this highly traumatized man revealed in the course of the film. The latest movie on 9/11, The Reflecting Pool, premiered in 2008 and is not (yet) scheduled for release in Europe. It is about an investigation of facts that were left out of the official 9/11-Commission Report.

In this paper, 25th Hour and World Trade Center will be discussed in more detail. These two films are selected because they are representative of opposite poles on a spectrum of strategies of a depiction of September 11. 25th Hour might be said to deal with 9/11 on a rather metaphorical level, whereas WTC engages directly with the attacks. I argue that the difference in approach is not merely an artistic choice, but also due to the cultural climate— influenced by the temporal distance to the events—that they confront.

Spike Lee’s 25th Hour

Although 25th Hour is based on David Benioff’s novella written before September 11, 2001, and filming began before the attacks occurred, it could be regarded as a 9/11-film. The storyline of the movie is basically unaltered from Benioff’s novella. The film depicts the last 24 hours of freedom for Montgomery (Monty) Brogan before his seven-year stay in prison for drug trafficking. Monty is convinced that he will not survive prison and thus revisits New York places significant to him while saying goodbye to his friends and family. In a cataclysmic scene he implores his best friend to deform his handsome face by brutally beating him—in the hope that a scarred face might earn him a less vulnerable position once in prison. The movie ends with a utopian fantasy reminiscent of the mythic American ‘Go-West’-topos. Monty’s father, while driving Monty to prison, suggests to him that they might drive out West, where he could start a new life and thereby evade prison. Through a grainy quality of the movie stock that elaborates on this fantasy as well as a perfectly narrated voice-over of Monty’s father, director Spike Lee makes explicit that this fantasy is not an option for Monty. Throughout the course of the movie, Monty has learned to take on responsibility for his own deeds.

The title sequence alone already produces a diegetic space haunted by 9/11. It begins with shots of gigantic blue headlights that are shifted into position. Following a long title sequence of imagery reminiscent of a city symphony of New York tinted in blue light, it is only when a full shot of the Manhattan skyline is revealed after approximately two thirds into the title sequence that it becomes obvious what the headlights and their blue light belongs to: The Tribute in Light. This memorial, also titled Towers of Light was conceived by the architects John Bennet and Gustavo Bonevardi and illuminated the New York night sky from March 11 through April 14, 2002 (Young 220). It was placed next to the site of Ground Zero.

It might be argued that, given the fact that Lee was actually filming in New York during the time of the memorial, he could not have avoided a reference to it. However, the inclusion of the Tribute in Light is too crafted and artful to be a merely coincidental reference to 9/11. Lee turns the haunting memory of September 11 into an important component of the movie. Light of the same blue shading as the Towers of Light recurs throughout the movie, be it in outside shots or sequences filmed in the interior of New York buildings. Sometimes, it is merely a blue flickering in the streets, at other times it is used more prominently. In a scene that depicts the farewell party to Monty in a disco owned by a Russian drug baron, with whom Monty had been closely affiliated, everything is filmed in blue light. With the help of the recurring blue light, Lee clearly links the tragic turn of events of his main protagonist’s life with the tragedy that still lingers over the city of New York.

Another moment of intersection between personal and public tragedy occurs in a rap-like monologue delivered by Monty’s reflection in the mirror of the restroom of his father’s distinctly Irish pub.5 In this scene, Monty goes to the restroom to avoid further discussions with his father. On the mirror that he faces, a hand-written epigraph states “fuck you.” What follows is a cross-cutting between Monty’s face reflected in the mirror, rapping a hate tirade about all the various groups and ethnicities, boroughs, and places New York incorporates, as well as a cursing of Jesus Christ and Osama Bin Laden. The footage of Osama Bin Laden in a cave with his followers is accompanied by the following words: “Fuck Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and backward-assed cave-dwelling fundamentalist assholes everywhere. On the names of innocent thousands murdered. I pray you spend the rest of eternity with your 72 whores, roasted in a jet-fueled fire in hell.” The “innocent thousands murdered” and “jet-fueled” are direct references to 9/11. The rap continues with the cursing of close friends and family, followed by a curse on the whole city to be destroyed by natural forces. The rap-sequence might be seen as a swan song to all positive myths regarding a melting pot in a globalized world.

The scene ends with Monty looking into the mirror, shaking his head and stating: “No, fuck you, Montgomery Brogan. You had it all and you threw it away, you dumb fuck.” By ending this sequence with Monty’s self-accusation, Lee produces a powerful statement about moral responsibility of each individual citizen. The collage-like footage that is underlining most of the rap-scene restages scenes and settings of most of Lee’s older movies.6 Therefore, the seeming attack on various ethnicities within New York City cannot be interpreted as a damnation of actual people, but as a renegotiation of the director’s personal approach to his home town. Lee’s past films—e.g. Do the Right Thing and Bamboozled—set in pre-9/11 New York City are negotiations of the relation between individual and group responsibility in the face of (intra-)racial and class conflicts. By the inclusion of Osama Bin Laden into the retrospective collage, Lee enlarges the field of moral responsibility. A character like Monty can neither put the blame for his crimes on the multicultural setting of New York, nor on the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The framing of the rap-sequence heightens the emphasis on individual responsibility. The pub in which the restroom is located is set up as a popular meeting place for firefighters in the Bronx. There is a memorial wall to all the firefighters who have lost their lives. We are informed that among the deceased is a man who went to school with Monty. He died during rescue efforts on September 11, 2001. When Monty leaves the pub at the end of the sequence, he has to walk out in front of the memorial wall. Contrasting Monty with this heroic figure comments on the fact that individual responsibility adheres to both crime and good deeds, no matter what the circumstances are.

Although my reading of Lee’s film points to a contrast between personal and public tragedy, the two are deeply interlinked on an emphatic level. In a crucial scene about half-way into the movie, Monty’s two oldest and best friends, Frank and Jacob, meet before they attend Monty’s farewell party. The sequence is set in the apartment of Frank, a Wall Street broker who is trying to climb the career ladder. His home betrays his efforts to live a ‘yuppie’ lifestyle. When Frank and Jacob walk over to the apartment’s large window front, the elegiac music introduced in the title sequence starts playing. As the camera approaches the window where Frank and Jacob have settled with beers in hand, the view of the two friends is revealed: the apartment is located right next to Ground Zero and the camera documents the ‘real’ scene of clearing up the attacked space, executed by machines and humans together. The footage of Ground Zero is tinted with the blue light of the Towers of Light. Two discussions central to the film follow. The first is about the bleak scene Frank and Jacob confront—Ground Zero. The second is about Monty’s ruined life. For the first time in the film it becomes apparent that the stay at the prison might terminate Monty’s life. Once again, Monty’s plight and 9/11 become aligned without a clear indication of how this pairing should be read. A close reading of the sequence might enlighten Lee’s choice to link the plot to 9/11.

The conversation that ensues about Ground Zero is very restricted as the horror that lies in the scene is occluded in most parts and depends on the spectator’s knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Frank resolutely disavows personal consequences of the attacks on his life. When Jacob first realizes what he is witnessing, he exclaims: “Jesus Christ . . . the New York Times says the air is bad down here.” Frank replies: “Yeah? Well, fuck the Times. I read the Post.” Thus, Frank shapes his reality by the sources he consults and disregards the physical evidence for the attack that had happened so close to his living space. Yet it is telling that he sits with his back to the window, thus trying to shield himself from the site of disaster. However, sporadically he turns his head to look at Ground Zero, as if he was forced to behold the scene. Later, he states that he will not move: “Fuck that! As much good money as I paid for this place? Hell no. Tell you what—Bin Laden could drop another one right next door, I ain’t moving.” In contrast to the scripting of Frank as a cynical and tough Wall Street banker, Frank’s body language speaks of the fear the attacks have induced in him. Frank’s behavior is symptomatic of many New Yorkers after the attacks.

After an uncomfortable pause during which Frank is turning his back on Ground Zero and Jacob is staring on it, the conversation shifts from to Monty and his impending fate. Jacob is as troubled by Monty’s future as he is troubled by looking at the attack site. Frank is less sympathetic for Monty and tells Jacob that Monty had financed his lifestyle by wrong deeds: “Paid for by the misery of other people. He got caught. He'll be locked up . . . he fucking deserves it.” Jacob does neither comment on nor contradict his friend’s opinion, but turns to a possible future for Monty. A discussion about Monty’s destiny follows:

Frank: He's [Monty’s] got three choices. None of them are good. One, he can run. Two, catch the bullet train. [Frank gestures committing suicide by holding a gun to his head.]
Jacob: Bullet train? [Jacob laughs uncomfortably. ]
Frank: I'm not saying what he's gonna do. I'm saying what his choices are. His third choice is he goes to prison, that's it.
Jacob: And that's what he's gonna do. He'll go and I'll see him when he gets out.
Frank: Maybe. I'll tell you what. [Frank looks to Ground Zero]. After tonight, it's bye-bye, Monty.

The pairing with Ground Zero comments on the fact that the victims of the attacks of September 11 never did have any options. Although the gravity of Monty’s situation is echoed by the scene of Ground Zero, Lee restates his conviction that Monty himself is responsible for his destiny.

Despite the seeming hopelessness the scene offers, Lee inserts an element that points to a more optimistic reading. At the end of the sequence, the camera moves up above Jacob’s head, at first taking on his subjective point of view. Then the camera zooms into Ground Zero. The music functions on an extra-diegetic level and serves as accompaniment to a collage of various arenas of clean-up work. The combination of the music with the images of people struggling to clear the site of the attacks attests to the survival and strength of New Yorkers. In the first shot, an American flag is placed underneath an enormous tower crane. The next shots depict residues of the Twin Towers, diggers, cranes, trucks loaded with debris, and finally human beings cleaning up with shovels. After this last image, the screen fades to black and stays black for almost three seconds. This pause is a powerful stylistic means to indicate the bleakness of the documented scene. However, the black screen could also be read as a reverential pause within the film. On the one hand, the black offers closure to the footage of 9/11, setting it apart from the fictional elements of the film. On the other hand it perpetuates the courage and goodwill of the people who work on Ground Zero. Via the pairing of Monty’s doomed destiny with Ground Zero, Lee contrasts this brave and future-oriented mindset of the people working on Ground Zero with Monty’s wrong-doing that only he can redeem by serving his term in prison. Allegorically speaking, Monty will have to enter his own ‘Ground Zero’ and work towards the betterment of his personal future.

Lee’s film is an exceptionally early cinematic reflection on September 11. Shooting began merely months after the attacks. It is a tribute to Spike Lee’s emphatic and clever treatment of 9/11 that 25th Hour did not elicit accusations from critics and audiences of capitalizing on the tragedy. Still, the question remains whether including elements of 9/11 did actually enhance the plot of 25th Hour and if such a step was necessary for the depiction of Benioff’s novella. Patricia O’Neill comments that “the inclusion of the event in the film’s immediate memory and the treatment of the site of the attack permit us not only to view the devastation but also the work of survival” (5). Certainly, the reflections on 9/11 within 25th Hour do not disrupt Benioff’s creation, but rather add a layer to the plot that accentuates the importance of New York City as a multi-cultural space in which all members of the community are responsible for their own deeds—even in the face of a tragedy of the size of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (WTC)

Compared to Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (WTC) deals with the events of 9/11 in a much more direct fashion. When Stone announced that he would direct a movie about the September 11 attacks, many critics suspected that he would turn Andrea Berloff’s script about the rescue of two port authority officers into a politicized tale. Comments that Stone had uttered as early as 2001 showed his discontent with how the Bush administration handled the terrorist attacks. In a panel “Making Movies that Matter” at the New York Film Festival in 2001, Stone had announced that, if asked to make a movie about the then recent attacks, he would make it in the tradition of The Battle of Algiers—a film that delivers a highly complex reflection on violence and torture (Ansen 47). Clearly, WTC is not the type of film the director announced in 2001.

In its most basic form, WTC is a rescue movie. It is the story of the survival of Officer John McLoughlin, played by Nicholas Cage, and Officer Willy Jimeno, played by Michael Peña. The film starts by depicting the two officers leaving their homes in the New York suburbs for their jobs as officers for the Port Authority in Manhattan. After the first plane collides with the South Tower of the World Trade Center, members of their unit are called to the disaster site. McLoughlin, who already experienced the bombings on the World Trade Center in 1993, is asked to lead the squad into the World Trade Center for rescue operations. During the attempt to organize more material for the rescue in the underground floors of one of the towers, the building collapses. Initially, three men survive—McLoughlin, Jimeno, and Pezzulo, one of their colleagues. After the collapse of the second tower, only McLoughlin and Jimeno remain, buried underneath the rubble, almost in complete darkness. The movie is then split up into four different storylines. The first one is about the fate of the two ‘buried’ men, the second and third depict their respective families, gathered together, waiting for news and hoping for the best. A fourth storyline features David Karnes, an ex-Marine and born-again Christian who gets so enraged by what he witnesses on the television screen that he leaves for New York and eventually ends up at Ground Zero to locate McLoughlin and Jimeno. The film stages the recuperations of the injured men, especially McLoughlin’s rescue, as resurrections from Ground Zero by a brave rescue team that does not relinquish its efforts. The film ends with a barbecue months later, organized by the recovered officers to thank their rescuers. A dedication to all the victims precedes the credits.

It might be deemed ironic that McLoughlin and Jimeno show no awareness of the scale of the tragedy taking place. When they arrive at the site, it is still unclear if the collision of the plane with the tower was an accident. There is already rumor spreading about a second plane and thus hints for a terrorist attack. But the men are buried too deep to be connected to the outside world. If Stone had stayed with the two officers, WTC could have been a simple rescue movie, without reference to the circumstances of 9/11. At one point during the film, Stone stages a very clever magic shot in order to show how far removed the two men are from the media spectacle that is enfolding in the outside world. The camera moves away from Jimeno’s face, dollies through the rubble higher and higher until we are confronted with a birdview shot of smoking Manhattan. Once the camera has reached its final height, satellites cross the screen with Manhattan still visible underneath. What follows is a collage of original newscast footage of people all over the world learning about the attacks. The camera centers on people gathered in front of television screens in a mid-Eastern café, people listening to the radio in African marketplaces, people in European streets gathering around television sets put on sidewalks, and other scenes where empathy is expressed toward the happenings on American soil. Thus the two people with the most direct experience of the catastrophe McLoughlin and Jimeno are depicted as the least informed as to the circumstances of their fate. However, this secluded position of the main characters from the global importance of 9/11 allows Stone to narrate their survival on a very intimate level.

The collage of newscasts is not the only time Stone makes use of original footage. When the officers arrive on site, original shots of the burning towers are intersected with shots of a staged setting including falling paper and bleeding survivors. However, this mingling of original footage and staged film material is rather problematic. On the one hand it allows spectators to fully immerse themselves in the frantic atmosphere and to better esteem the courage it took the rescue workers to walk into the hellish scenario. On the other hand it comes close to capitalizing on the troubling television footage. The falling paper in the shot when the officers arrive on the scene might have sufficed to prepare the setting for the horrors to come.

Another of Stone’s strategies to introduce original footage is by inserting scenes of characters watching television. This happens the first time when Jimeno’s pregnant wife Allison is watching television along with her co-workers. The small television set shows footage of the towers while the commentator recounts: “This is the collapse of the second tower.” We can only see Allison’s back when she is watching this—it is an over-the-shoulder shot with her colleagues looking at her worriedly. This inclusion of television might serve as a comment that the footage of the attacks shown on television bore a harsh reality for families and victims of September 11. It illustrates that the notion of “like a movie” does not apply for the victim’s families.

However, there is another reason for Stone’s use of television images. In an account that describes how September 11 was experienced by Americans, the role of television cannot be neglected. Throughout the scenes that depict the families gathered together, waiting for news of the missing ones, television screens are either placed in the back of the room, with some family members attentively watching, or we can simply hear the voice-overs of commentators or the voices of interviewed eyewitnesses. The described reality of eyewitnesses is contrasted with the enacted reality of the families. At one point, Allison leaves the house and walks into a street that is lit up with the blue light of television, streaming out of the houses’ windows. This, along with the ever-running television sets in the families’ houses, comments on the omnipresence of television on the day of September 11, 2001.

A study claims that Americans were watching an average of 8.1 hours of television on the day of the attacks (Eth 301). Television, both on September 11 itself and in the movie, becomes an interface between the reality of the attacks and the shocked outside world that is left to watch the edited scraps of information offered on screen. Especially when the constant replays of the most traumatizing footage—the collision of the planes with the towers, the still uncensored images of people jumping off the buildings, and the collapse of the buildings – started, television began to transform reality.

To have this transformed reality incorporated into a fictitious staging of one of the main sites of the attacks, is highly problematic. Questions such as the following arise. Is Stone, by including original footage into his movie, capitalizing on the mediality of 9/11? Is it a simple move to add authenticity to his narration of a ‘true tale’? Or is he, on the contrary, trying to work through the basically traumatizing footage of the attacks by embedding them into a story of hope that does not ask for revenge? Thinking back of the simile of 9/11 to be “like a movie,” the matter becomes even more confusing. Does the blending of original footage into the filmed movie stock restore the reality of the footage? Or are the images so blended into the film that they truly become “like a movie” and the original news footage completely loses the aura of the real? This paper cannot offer uncontested and universal answers to these questions. However, it might be said that Stone felt the time had arrived to revive a typical script of a Hollywood disaster film in order to narrate the events of September 11. The cross-cutting between victims and their families, in combination with inserted television footage (which in disaster films often is staged as well) is a well-known scenario for spectators. Although the spectator knows that in the case of WTC the television footage is original, it becomes too integrated into the movie to retain an aura of the real. The horror depicted in the footage still recalls the horrors of September 11, 2001, however in a transformed version that elicits cinematic thrills.

If the above argumentation holds true, then Stone might indeed be accused of capitalizing on 9/11. When WTC premiered in New York, New York Times journalist Felicia R. Lee reported that “[m]any New Yorkers at the cinema expressed that for them it was too early to watch a film about 9/11” (B2). Another moviegoer, Ian Henson, a 20-year-old film student stated: “People were seeing many films about World War II right after the war. If we’re not ready for it now, when are we ever ready for it?” (Lee B2). It seems that it truly depends on the individual when the time is right to be confronted with 9/11 in a movie. If we compare the use of original footage by Stone to the relentless replay of the footage that occurred on television in the weeks following the attacks, especially continuing even after the amount of information to be obtained from the footage had ceased, it might be noted that the level of capitalization on the tragedy by the mass media was much greater than any filmmaker has hitherto dared.

It can be assumed that Oliver Stone had good intentions when he filmed WTC. He delivers a tale that is designed to honor and mourn the victims of the 9/11 attacks without retorting to comments about the significance of 9/11 on a globo-political scale.7 WTC is representative of how Hollywood films about 9/11 have downsized the attacks into what Georg Seesslen calls “Subjekt-Katastrophen”8 (29)—simple tales of personal destinies that happened on a day that has been declared to be a day of “national tragedy.” Stone offers a basic tale—that could be read as a parable were it not for being “true” —as a platform for Americans to work through anxieties that the attacks stimulated. The movie is designed as a tool for psychological mass therapy, or as Stone himself said: “Relive the day and start the process of getting over the fear” (qtd. in Johnson 50). The spectators follow the camera to the (both enacted and original) spaces of trauma of the day of the attacks itself, led on by a storyline that promises survival and hope. David Ansen, confronted with the dilemma how to judge Stone’s unusually tame approach to a highly political subject, notes: “Perhaps, in the future, the times will call for more challenging, or polemical, or subversive visions. Right now, it feels like the 9/11 movie we need” (53). And maybe it will be up to Oliver Stone to deliver a 9/11-film for the future.


Beginning on September 12, 2001, Hollywood began to acknowledge its responsibility for the envisioning and staging of terrorist fantasies—an idea that was expressed by many Americans by applying the simile “like a movie” to the witnessed events of September 11. Indeed it seems as if the terrorist attacks were intended to mimic an American disaster film both in scale of the imagined harm and the aesthetics (reminiscent of the sublime) the footage would eventually produce on television. Consequently, many movies that might have reminded the public of the attacks, were re-edited, shelved back, or, if planned at the time of the events, not produced.

Generally speaking, the evolvement of films that narrate the events directly has been accompanied by a lot of hesitance and careful pondering. In this paper, two films that represent two opposing strategies of processing 9/11 have been analyzed. 25th Hour was the first American feature film set in New York to include direct references to 9/11 and its aftermath into the plot. Its director, Spike Lee, chose to deliver a portrait of a post-9/11 New York City still haunted by the then recent attacks. In contrast to Lee’s near-metaphorical use of 9/11, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center narrates the attacks on the World Trade Center through the matrix of a conventional Hollywood disaster film. Stone’s merging of original footage with filmed stock might be regarded as quite problematic. However, through embedding the potentially traumatizing images within a story of survival and hope, WTC makes an offer of closure to the trauma of 9/11.

In an article that summarizes Hollywood films that narrate September 11, Emmanuel Burdeau, chief editor of one of the most important French cinema journals, noted with astonishment:

Cela restera comme une des surprises de ce temps: après le 11 septembre 2001, les Etats-Unis n'ont pas produit un cinéma de vengeance mettant en scène l'événement dans le cadre d'un spectaculaire propre à galvaniser le patriotisme des foules. (79)9

It is indeed remarkable that Hollywood did not choose to stage 9/11 as a terrorist blockbuster film that calls for revenge and war. At the same time, however, every disaster or terrorist movie since the attacks has commented on September 11 in one way or another—some to propagandistic and militaristic ends. When films dared to directly narrate the attacks and their aftermath, the time for a blatant call to arms was over. Rather, the emphasis lay on a cinematic examination of the turmoil of 9/11 and its effect on individual people. The hope remains that in the future more films about 9/11 will be produced that attest to the various meanings and readings of 9/11 and the impact it has had on individual Americans. Only a multi-voiced corpus of 9/11-movies, embedded into a lively discussion within American society, will dismount the claim that the events of September 11, 2001 were “like a movie.”

1 “Like a movie” serves as a representative expression to report the felt resemblance between 9/11 and a Hollywood movie. In articles that discuss this resemblance (e.g. Press; Kahane; Rich; Schaffer; and Scheffer), slightly different wordings are applied.

2 How much this sensitivity has changed since the early days after the attacks is exemplified by the fact that “by 2005, Steven Spielberg, in ‘Munich,’ was digitally inserting the Twin Towers into the skyline at the end of the film, linking the terrorism in his tale to the terrorist attack that was to come”(Ansen 49).

3 Lawrence Wright, the screenwriter of The Siege claims that 9/11 surpassed the imagined happenings of his story: “[9/11 was] cinematic in a kind of super-real way. It was too Hollywood. We could have never used [the tower attacks] in The Siege. It would be too impossible” (Dixon 9).

4 Unfortunately, the film was advertised as a comedy—which might be one of the main reasons why it failed at the box office. In Europe, The Great New Wonderful never entered movie theaters and was only released on DVD.

5 I would like to thank Cécile Stehrenberger for the remark about Monty’s “rap” that she made in a discussion of the film in the meeting of members of the Graduate School “Körper, Selbsttechnologien, Geschlecht: Entgrenzungen und Begrenzungen” on December 8, 2008.

6 I would like to thank Prof. Dr. Elisabeth Bronfen for pointing out the references to Lee’s older movies in the analyzed sequence at the meeting mentioned in footnote 4.

7 Stone has included his globo-political views on 9/11 into his latest film W.—a biopic about ex-president George W. Bush. In this movie, Stone stages talks in the secluded meeting rooms of the White House where President Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld are discussing imperialistic plans for the Middle East—under the pretense to avert future assaults on American soil that would be comparable to the ones on September 11, 2001.

8 “Catastrophes happening to a single subject” (my translation).

9 It will be one of the continuing surprises of our time: After September 11, 2001, the United States have not produced revenge cinema that puts the event into the frame of spectacle in order to stir the patriotism of the masses” (my translation).

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W. Dir. Oliver Stone. Perf. Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell. Emperor Motion Pictures, 2008.

World Trade Center. Dir. Oliver Stone. Perf. Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maria Bello. 2006. DVD. Paramount Pictures, 2007.