Some people may be too young to remember—or weren’t even around to remember—how much utter confusion commenced after the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell on Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001.
I mean, nobody knew what to do. Even our President at the time, who was at a Sarasota school reading “The Pet Goat” to a bunch of kids, looked like he was paralyzed with fear when he got the news. Our way of life changed instantly: Something we never thought could happen actually happened. Innocent people died, from the various people in those buildings to the first responders who spent weeks and months trying to find them. We were all stuck in a morbid state of panic, afraid of what the hell would happen next and trying to figure out how we could prevent more attacks from coming to our homeland.
It was a super-sensitive time. There was actually a point where people speculated on whether or not we could indulge in the same snarky entertainment we used to pre-9/11. It seemed things were on the verge of becoming more sincere and earnest. Old fogies like Graydon Carter and Roger Rosenblatt began rumbling that the age of irony was done and professional satirists like David Letterman, Jon Stewart and the Saturday Night Live crew may have to change their smart-ass shtick. In a twist that could be considered ironic, audiences gravitated to these smart-asses even more—even after a life-altering disaster, people need a good laugh wherever they can get it.
It was also a topic of discussion whether or not movies could continue giving us the same escapist thrills. Sure, it was awesome seeing the aliens blow up the White House in Independence Day five years earlier. But we never thought shit like that could really happen!
The film industry walked on eggshells during this time, trying not to upset or offend shell-shocked audiences. Some studios delayed the release of films so they could omit some things. The Michael Douglas thriller Don’t Say a Word, released three weeks after the attacks, cut out shots that included the World Trade Center. (They did keep the finale where—spoilers—the bad guy is buried alive.) The Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Collateral Damage was heavily reshaped before getting released the following February, toning down its terrorism theme and taking out scenes where a pre-Modern Family Sofia Vergara hijacks a plane. Meanwhile, Miramax delayed releasing the “comedy” View from the Top, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as an ambitious flight attendant, for nearly two years, reshooting and retweaking scenes so it wouldn’t look like the movie was making fun of our brave associates in the sky.
As Americans began getting more bloodthirsty, ready to go after Osama bin Laden and the rest of the al-Qaeda conspirators, jingoistic war movies started to get back in vogue. In November of 2001, the action piffle Behind Enemy Lines, with Owen Wilson as a naval flight officer shot down over Bosnia and Gene Hackman as the commanding officer trying to get him out, was a surprising success, taking in nearly $100 million at the box office. A month later, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, where several studly It Boys (Hartnett! McGregor! Bana!) re-enacted the U.S.’s 1993 raid on Mogadishu, was released. Even though the film was criticized for its inaccuracies, it became a box office hit that would go on to win Oscars for Best Film Editing and Best Sound.
Of course, once we got into war, which involved liberating Middle Eastern countries and going after Saddam Hussein (again!) for some reason, more filmmakers began using their craft to comment on life during wartime. In 2005, Steven Spielberg hit us with a very political two-shot. He took the H.G. Wells alien invasion story War of the Worlds and re-made it as a summer movie allegory on post-9/11 hysteria, with Tom Cruise as a single dad frantically trying to keep himself and his kids out of harm’s way. He followed it up with the fact-based, Oscar-nominated Munich, with Eric Bana and Daniel Craig as part of a crew of Israeli government-sanctioned assassins going after the Palestinian Black September Organization responsible for the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics.
International filmmakers got in on the act. The Wachowskis got Australian director James McTeigue to direct their script adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta. With its storyline of anarchists wreaking havoc on a neo-fascist, totalitarian regime, they all must’ve felt that dropping this movie smack dab in the Bush II era would be a good idea. Denmark’s Lars von Trier followed up his controversial Dogville (which some already deemed an allegory for the U.S.’s violent crusades) with the even-more-derisive Manderlay, a thinly-veiled Bush administration takedown where Bryce Dallas Howard’s white savior “liberates” a 1930s plantation populated by Black slaves. You could even say Christopher Nolan, that complicated Englishman, turned Batman into a paranoid, surveillance-monitoring, War on Terror advocate in The Dark Knight.
Smart-ass filmmakers also came out to make fun of our so-called liberating methods. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone rounded up marionettes to act like gung-ho freedom fighters in the bonkers Team America: World Police. And the iconic Albert Brooks wrote, directed and starred in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, where he went on a mission to India and Pakistan to see what makes Muslims laugh, ultimately doing more harm than good.
There were filmmakers who showed how war is hell on both sides. In 2006, Clint Eastwood did the amazing feat of making Flags of Our Fathers, about U.S. soldiers coming home after the Battle of Iwo Jima. He then followed that up a couple months later with the Oscar-nominated Letters from Iwo Jima, which told the story from the Japanese perspective.
It would take a few years for filmmakers to take the plunge and start making movies about the day that started it all. Paul Greengrass, the helmer of several Jason Bourne movies, made United 93 in 2006, an in-your-face account of what happened on United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists, but crashed in a field in Pennsylvania when passengers tried to take control back. That same year, the usually provocative Oliver Stone shocked everyone by making the solemn-as-hell World Trade Center, starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña as New York firefighters who try to survive as they’re pinned in the rubble. (He followed that up in 2008 with W., a biopic about you-know-who.)
Throughout the years, we’ve gotten many cinematic interpretations on how 9/11 has affected us, from Spike Lee’s melancholic drama 25th Hour to Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker to the utterly embarrassing Robert Pattinson vehicle Remember Me. (I won’t spoil the movie for you, but it blows!) But these films are still reminders of how much that day shook us all to our core.
Much like most Americans continue to do to this day, many filmmakers tried to make some sense of it all. They created cinema that sometimes succeeded (and sometimes failed) to capture the shock, the anxiety, the confusion, the sadness and the mayhem that seeped into America ever since that core-shaking morning. Have things in Hollywood changed drastically ever since 9/11? Well, lemme put it to you this way: There certainly weren’t as many comic book movies—filled with superheroes ready to fight evil, outside forces who wanna take us all out—back then as there are now!
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.