9/11 in Hollywood: How Five Storytellers Explained a Day of Infamy

World Trade Center movie
Michael Peña and Nicolas Cage star in Oliver Stone's 9/11 drama "World Trade Center." (Paramount Pictures)

Twenty years after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it’s striking how few movies and shows there are about the events directly connected to the attacks. It’s a challenging topic for filmmakers, especially when dozens of documentaries feature hundreds of hours of footage that show the actual events.

Hollywood has tried to incorporate the defining event of the era into films and shows by other means, mostly by portraying characters who survived or heroes motivated to enter the arena after witnessing the events of the day.

There are quite a few dramatic movies that feature characters who are trying to process their own experiences. “Reign Over Me” with Adam Sandler (2007), “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” with Tom Hanks (2011) and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” with Riz Ahmed (2012) tell stories of survivors who struggle to process the events, but none deal directly with the attacks.

In “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014), Chris Pine as Jack leaves his studies at the London School of Economics after 9/11 to take on the fight. In the upcoming Amazon series “The Terminal List,” based on the novel by former SEAL Jack Carr, Chris Pratt plays former SEAL James Reece, a ruthless operator who joined the Navy after his fiancée was killed in the Twin Towers collapse.

Sift through all the evidence, and you won’t come up with many real attempts to tell the story. Fortunately, everything on the short list is well worth watching.

Here are five essential stories about 9/11.

The Looming Tower (2018)

Based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” this 10-episode series zooms in on disagreements in the national security community as the biggest contributing factor to the terror attacks in 2001.

The series opens in 1998, a time when Osama bin Laden is well-known in security circles. Jeff Daniels plays John O’Neill, an FBI counterterrorism expert who believes that bin Laden and his henchmen should be arrested and tried as criminals. Peter Sarsgaard plays fictional CIA operative Martin Schmidt who wants the U.S. to bomb al-Qaeda, just like any other foreign enemy.

That’s the crux of the issue that stymied the intelligence world. What were we supposed to do about a non-state actor in a world with defined rules about how to use the military to engage enemy states? That indecision and infighting led to disaster.

Schmidt is a composite character based on several CIA officials, but there’s a consensus about which person is the main inspiration. The intelligence officials in the series are all flawed individuals who could have used some better oversight from men and women in leadership positions.

Since there have been no 9/11-level foreign terror attacks on U.S. soil over the past two decades, does that mean our intelligence communities have learned lessons from the disaster portrayed in “The Looming Tower”? Let’s hope so.

United 93 (2006)

Director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy,” “Captain Phillips”) brings his trademark handheld camera style to the story of the United Airlines flight that was aiming to crash into the White House on 9/11.

The passengers on the plane realized that the terrorists had something evil planned and stormed the cockpit, crashing the plane into a field in Pennsylvania and killing everyone on board. It’s both one of the most harrowing, yet hopeful stories on a day otherwise filled with sorrow.

The amazing thing about “United 93” is that Greengrass gives the passengers on the flight the same action hero framing that he gave Matt Damon in the “Bourne” movies. Regular citizens learned of the attacks from friends and family members on the ground and took action against an enemy that none of them had ever dreamed they might face.

The movie would rank as one of the decade’s best thrillers if it weren’t actually a terrifying true story. It’s a moving tribute to the passengers that’s also a challenge to watch.

World Trade Center (2006)

Oliver Stone, the noted Vietnam War veteran and movie director, put his conspiracy theories on hold when he made this straightforward story about the men and women who first responded to the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City.

Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage, “Con Air”) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña, “12 Strong”) are searching the Ground Zero site in New York City when Building 7 collapses, trapping both men in the rubble.

They spend hours trapped in the rubble before they are located by U.S. Marine Corps veterans Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon, “12 Strong”) and Jason Thomas (William Mapother, “Mission: Impossible 2”). Both men are eventually rescued and fully recovered, allowing Stone to tell another of the few uplifting stories that took place on that tragic day.

Mapother, who's Tom Cruise's cousin, is a White actor. Marine vet Thomas never had been interviewed or shared his story with the media, so no one realized the soot-covered rescuer was a Black man. Thomas went public after the movie was released and his interviews make up a large chunk of episode 6 of the 2021 National Geographic Channel documentary “9/11: One Day in America.”

Related: A Marine Vet Put His Uniform Back on and Rushed to Ground Zero. Here’s His Story

12 Strong (2018)

U.S. Army Green Beret ODA 595 deployed to Afghanistan in October 2001, just about a month after 9/11. The spec ops warriors were on a secret mission to prepare for the upcoming U.S. invasion of the country as U.S. forces intended to hunt down those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

The movie is based on the 2009 nonfiction bestseller “Horse Soldiers,” written by journalist Doug Stanton. Because many details of the mission were classified when the book was published, no one’s identified by his real name and those aliases were used in the movie.

Fortunately for the rest of us, the real horse soldiers were allowed to identify themselves and tell their stories around the time the movie was released. “Mitch Nelson” is portrayed by Chris Hemsworth (“Thor”) in the movie and “Hal Spencer” is portrayed by Michael Shannon (“World Trade Center”). “Nelson” and “Spencer” are actually Army veterans Mark Nutsch and Bob Pennington. Both spoke with us when “12 Strong” was released.


Related: '12 Strong' & the Legend of the Horse Soldiers

The movie follows one of the most successful modern military missions and offers a reminder of what was originally at stake in Afghanistan at a time when many Americans were wondering why we were fighting there.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

After the invasion of Afghanistan was complete, our leaders didn’t give forces on the ground full authority to pursue Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda terrorists in the heat of that moment. That decision led to a nearly decade-long cat-and-mouse game as intelligence analysts tried to locate the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal had won Oscars for the 2010 Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker,” and their movie about the hunt for bin Laden was hotly anticipated when it was released just over a year after Navy SEALs took out the terrorist in a raid at Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The movie celebrates the players in both the intelligence and military communities whose dedication to the search eventually led to bin Laden’s downfall, but it subtly raises the question as to why it took so damn long for the United States to hold him accountable.

There’s a sense of accomplishment in “Zero Dark Thirty,” but it’s not at all the kind of flag-waving celebration that some viewers might have wanted. The cost of success had been too high to ignore, and the movie respects those who made sacrifices as the United States aimed to hold al Qaeda responsible.

Related: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Honors the Men and Women Who Took Out Bin Laden

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