Overview for films in 21st Century
(Digital History ID 2967)

Hollywood and 9/11

Immediately following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, many Americans compared the scenes that they had witnessed on television—the collapse of the World Trade Center towers and the devastation at the Pentagon—to scenes from the movies. For a decade, Hollywood had released a rash of films dealing with doomsday, the apocalypse and Armageddon, A number, notably, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, portrayed the destruction of architectural icons. Now, life seemed to have imitated popular entertainment.

Popular films invariably reflect the atmosphere of their times. Although many Americans associate the 1990s with the dot com high technology boom, it was also a decade of anxiety. Many worried about America’s economic competitiveness. A lot of worries focused on children—on sexual predators, stranger abduction, and youth crime. Many popular films reflected this mixture of optimism and fear, giving viewers a roller coast ride, combining moments of elation and of stark terror.

The September 11th attacks gave public anxieties a human face. Yet curiously during the five years following September 11th, 2001, not a single Hollywood film dealt directly with the terrorist attacks. One suspects that the subject was too sensitive to be dealt with directly. Nevertheless, the 9/11 attacks did exert a profound, if indirect, impact on the movies. Much as Cold War fears were addressed metaphorically in the science fiction films of the 1950s, so, too, the films of the early 2000s gave indirect expression to public concerns.

Take the 2004 version of The Alamo. The movie trailer described the doomed defenders of the former Spanish mission: “They were bankers, farmers, brothers, fathers, outcasts, dreamers, and legends.” The parallel with the victims of the World Trade Center towers collapse was inescapable. Similarly, the film’s pledge--“We will Show the world what patriots are made of”—captured the country’s assertive frame of mind after the terrorist attacks.

Or take Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds (2005). With its graphic depiction of a urban destruction, widespread panic, and even a crashed airliner, the film evoked vivid memories of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The contrast between two films that dealt with a somewhat similar subject—Black Hawk Down (2001) and Tears of the Sun (2003) - illustrates the impact of the terrorist strikes. Both films deal with American intervention in the Third World, one critically, the other sympathetically. Black Hawk Down recounts the story of elite Army Rangers who were ordered to capture two top lieutenants of a warload in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. Two of their helicopters were shot down and eighteen Rangers were killed. The film is very much a cautionary tale about the dangers of interventions in societies that the United States does not know well.

In Tears of the Sun, a fictional special operations commander violates his orders to rescue a doctor and seventy refugees threatened by African rebels. The message is the mirror image of that in Black Hawk Down: that humanitarian duty to help innocent civilians should outstrip strict obedience to orders.

Copyright Digital History 2021