It’s been years, but if you close your eyes, all those horrific images are still with you. Both of these 9/11 films were released in 2006 during the run-up to the five-year anniversary of the events of that terrible day. At the time critics kept wringing their hands about whether or not it was too early to tell these stories. Looking back, the better question could easily have been what took so long? Making films is how we increasingly begin to process events like these. It doesn’t have to trivialize them or make them less important, although that can be the danger.
We’ll use box office stats to name our opponents. With that as the standard, World Trade Center becomes our champ with 163-million dollars worldwide. United 93 comes in as the challenger with only 76-million dollars. But, especially when it comes to material like this, the box office is only a point of reference and nothing more. Let’s say that you have the heart to re-live 9/11 on film with just one of them as we approach the 10th anniversary with Osama Bin Laden finally having paid with his own life. Which film should you watch?
The power of United 93 is simply undeniable. We’ve all been on airplanes. It could happen to anyone. Today we all know the risks of terrorism. But the passengers on this flight never saw this coming and had mere minutes to decide to be heroes on that fateful morning when their flight left Newark for San Francisco with 33 passengers and seven crew members on board. Writer/director Paul Greengrass tells this like a documentary and it is simply riveting. The camera work here is dynamic — handheld, jutting into the chaos. The actors are unknown here and, rather than being a drawback, it makes the entire tableau that much more compelling. For most of the film’s 111 minutes, the intensity simply cannot be denied.
United 93 feels like a sacred film; like something that should be shown on TV every September 11th, like It’s A Wonderful Life at Christmas-time. People need to remember what happened that day, stripped of all the political name-calling, second-guessing and hidden agendas. And, yes, even bullshit-crackpot theories about how the U-S government attacked itself.
What happened on 9/11 was a sneak attack that easily surpassed Pearl Harbor because it was an act of war on civilians by extremists and not governments. Thousands of innocent Americans died. If you have forgotten how you felt that day, then go see this film. You will remember. You should remember. We all should.
It’s a mistake to think about this film “in context” by talking about Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or the war in Iraq. These were things that were set in motion by reactions (and over-reactions) to the events of September 11. That day was so tragic and awful that it deserves, for at least a few hours, to be understood by itself and not by what it spawned. In the same way that United 93 works because there is no back-story to the characters on the plane (we only know what they know and know them only by what we see them say and do on the plane), the film should be watched as a powerful story about the singular dark power of 9/11 which many of us, in the heat of politics, have forgotten.
World Trade Center
Filled with actors you’ve seen before, World Trade Center focuses on the horrific experiences of two real-life New York Port Authority cops, John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), part of an instant-response unit, who were actually in the concourse of the World Trade Center when the Twin Towers crashed down around them on 9/11. The film takes two perspectives — that of McLoughlin and Jimeno after they were trapped in the rubble of the collapsed towers, but also the home-front where their families suffered through their own private hell. Both the cops and the families had nothing to do but wait for a rescue that, considering the totality of the destruction, seemed impossible. Only twenty people came out of that rubble in real life.
It’s hard to believe that this is an Oliver Stone directed film. There’s no crazy conspiracy theory at its core and he’s even included moments that are almost patriotically embarrassing. It’s as if Stone decided that this story is best told without the hyper-emotionalism and manipulation of his earlier work. He’s chosen to tell it, however, in a rather straight-forward way. Using a tight, well-drawn script from Andrea Berloff, Stone has concentrated on the characters and their problems and left his own baggage somewhere else.
For another compelling 9/11 related post, please read Hollywood in Wartime: Remembering the 2001 Emmy Awards by former TV Academy chairman and Smackdown editor-in-chief Bryce Zabel. He was elected immediately before 9/11 and forced to postpone the Emmy awards an unprecedented two times in the same year.
They’re both powerful, meticulously constructed films that will make you feel the rage you felt on 9/11, the sadness at the losses, and the pride in Americans helping Americans. Both of them also bounce back and forth from two POVs — the rubble and home in World Trade Center and the plane and air traffic control mostly in United 93.
The most gripping moments of World Trade Center, for me, come in the beginning with the reconstruction of the response to the attack — starting with disbelief, moving to horror, the mad dash, trying to get it together enough to save lives. Naturally, it becomes a different film after the men are trapped. The power of United 93 is that it stays in that moment of scramble and terror for its entire running time.
World Trade Center feels more like a movie than United 93 — it’s got star casting all the way through it, starting with Nicholas Cage and working down, and so you are never completely transported because it does feel like a Big Hollywood Picture. United 93 has almost nobody in it that you’d recognize and that, combined with its directorial spareness, makes it a complete immersion into the feelings of 9/11. Because we haven’t seen the United 93 actors, our preconceived notions are limited and that feels right.
Another difference is that Stone’s film is defined by seeing what’s going on with the families of the trapped police officers, but Greengrass’s film stays in the action, never going for the familial emotion, almost like that would be too easy.
The readers at the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) gave United 93 7.9/10 and World Trade Center a 6.4/10 score.
I was very moved by World Trade Center in all the ways that Stone intended. He’s made a strong, but conventional, film. But United 93 took me back so realistically I almost couldn’t stand it. While World Trade Center gives you the claustrophobia of being trapped and the awful feelings of the family tragedy, United 93 gives you raw 9/11 intensity. If you only have the emotional capacity for one 9/11 film on approaching the 10th anniversary, make it United 93. If you can stand the pain, see them both. Whatever you do, never forget.