Lists

8 Essential Films That Explore the Legacy of 9/11

A steel girder from one of the fallen Twin Towers.
A steel girder from one of the fallen Twin Towers. Alex Baxter/Getty
In the two decades since the events of September 11, filmmakers have struggled to adapt stories of heroism and tragedy to the big screen to audiences that might not want to relive those memories. For this reason, some filmmakers have kept a respectful and nuanced approach while broaching the subject, while others went for full realism effect to convey its true horrors.

Films such as United 93, World Trade Center and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close are an example of the latter, and received backlash among sensitive audiences. Films that incorporate 9/11 within an unrelated story have similarly provoked divisive responses. Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour was hailed as a respectful love letter to New York, but the Robert Pattinson romantic drama Remender Me was widely deemed offensive with its inclusion of a 9/11 twist ending.

Some of the most famous films about 9/11 are documentaries. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 sparked an unprecedented interest from American audiences in documentaries. Lee is also returning to the subject matter with an upcoming HBO docu-series that’s turning heads already with its conspiracy-centric themes.

Audiences don’t always agree whether it's Hollywood’s place to craft a dramatic or fictional story when many survivors are still living, but there is an advantage in using film to explore the impacts and consequences of real-life events. These films provide a well-rounded view on how radically the nation has changed within the last 20 years.


Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Among the most divisive films of the past decade, Kathryn Bigelow’s meticulous breakdown of the manhunt to find Osama Bin Laden is gruesome in its depiction of torture. We appreciate that Bigelow doesn’t lionize American tactics, allowing the viewer to determine their own point of view.

The Report (2019)
You may have missed this excellent chamber piece that stars Adam Driver as U.S. Senate staffer Daniel Jones, who developed the extensive “Torture Report” about detainees suspected of involvement in 9/11. As detail-oriented as it is infuriating, we’re also in awe of Annette Bening’s flawless depiction of Senator Dianne Feinstein.

The Mauritanian (2021)

Hollywood doesn’t spend enough time exploring the bigotry and xenophobia that surrounded the aftermath of the attacks. This underrated film from earlier this year gives a voice to Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 14 years without being charged by the U.S. Government. It’s a breakout for newcomer Tahar Rahim.

W. (2008)
Oliver Stone loves controversy as much as he loves stories on past U.S. presidents, but his George W. Bush biopic actually came out when the man was still in office. Stone is notorious for his critical viewpoint of multiple U.S. administrations, but his examination of how the 43rd President responded to the unprecedented events is surprisingly nuanced.

Vice (2018)
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, why was Dick Cheney immediately asking for his lawyer? This jaw-dropping biopic explores the vice president’s expansion of executive power with razor-sharp precision, and you’ll be surprised to see what was hidden in plain sight. Former Bruce Wayne himself, Christian Bale, is unrecognizable in his portrayal of Cheney.

The Walk (2015)
The Walk isn’t about 9/11, but it’s a good film to watch on the anniversary. The film explores French immigrant Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers and concludes with a touching tribute to the lives lost. The gorgeous IMAX 3D photography shows the beauty of the World Trade Center in vivid detail.

American Sniper (2014)
Clint Eastwood has earned as much controversy for his films as Oliver Stone, although he’s on the opposite side of the political spectrum. The biopic of sniper Chris Kyle became a national phenomenon and earned much acclaim for Bradley Cooper’s performance.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
This update of the Tom Clancy CIA analyst is the rare post-9/11 action film that incorporates the events naturally and respectfully. Chris Pine’s heroic patriot enlists to serve his nation after seeing it attacked, and he’s determined to bring justice without compromising his beliefs.
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in About.com, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.