Zero Dark Thirty to New York: The films and shows that captured 9/11 and its aftermath

screenmixSeptember 11, 2021

The world changed on 11 September 2001, irrevocably and permanently. It is 20 years since 9/11 when nearly 3,000 people died in a series of terrorist attacks whose reverberations were heard across the world. The events that unfolded on that sunny Tuesday seem incomprehensible even today. In the years since, cinema has not only shaped the perception of the attack; it has also been shaped by it and its chilling consequences.

Hollywood, known for leveraging violent real-life events, took five years before it announced the first film on the events seared into a generation’s consciousness, United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. Even the representation of Twin Towers were removed from the screens in the meanwhile. The original teaser trailer for Spider-Man (2001) that featured Twin Towers was withdrawn; the final scene of Men in Black II (2002) was reshot. It was considered too soon, too close to the horrific reality.

Over the years, cinema — in the US and abroad, captured the widespread fear, hatred, hate crimes and worst of all, the capricious decisions on part of the US government to launch what was dubbed as the war on terror — the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq on what on hindsight were flimsy pretexts. As the support for the attacks withered away, we got to see films such as The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Eye in the Sky (2015) that questioned US’ role in the Middle East. The black-and-white world of TV dramas such as 24 paved way for moral ambiguity of Homeland.

As the attacks complete 20 years, here are a few TV shows and movies related to 9/11 that managed to capture the terror attack and its aftermath.

The Looming Tower

Based on Lawrence Wright’s 2006 book of the same name, The Looming Tower is a pretty thorough account of the whole thing: background, the attacks themselves, why they were not averted, and the immediate aftermath. Brilliantly written with solid dialogue and superbly acted, The Looming Tower is gripping throughout.

The Road to Guantánamo

Director Michael Winterbottom shows the dramatised ordeal of Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal and Shafiq Rasul from their capture in Afghanistan to their incarceration at the base. What sets apart The Road to Guantanamo is that it is told from the perspective of the detainees. Part heart-wrenching documentary and part narrative feature, it explored the unlawful detention and torture of prisoners held at Gitmo without trial.

The Report

The Report is a drama film named after the report of the investigation into accusations of torture against the CIA in the wake of 9/11. Adam Driver headlines the film as a real-life figure Daniel J Jones, the current head of an organisation called Advance Democracy, Inc. Jones was responsible for a document called “Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Report of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program” which detailed, among other things, how many innocent people were brutally tortured by the CIA so that they said what the interrogators wanted.

Zero Dark Thirty

A pulse-pounding thriller that dramatises the events leading up to the assassination of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty makes great use of its starry cast to craft a film that, while being fast-paced, does not feel unsubstantial. Jessica Chastain, if you were ever in doubt about her talent, gives a striking performance in this movie..

New York

Directed by Kabir Khan, 2009 film New York focused on the after-effects of 9/11 attacks on Muslims living in the US. The film starred Katrina Kaif, John Abraham and Neil Nitin Mukesh in lead roles. Globally, Islamophobia was on a rise at the time and with films like these, one could see that there was a lot of collateral damage of the war on terror. The film also starred Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in significant roles.

Khuda Kay Liye

Released in 2007, Khuda Kay Liye was one of the most significant Pakistani films of the time that focused on the meaning of Islam and how it was being misinterpreted by terrorist organisations. The film’s events are set across the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan as it deals with fanaticism, women’s rights, creative liberty and also the future of those who have been wrongly labeled as ‘terrorists.’ Naseeruddin Shah, Fawad Khan, Shaan Shahid star in this Shoaib Mansoor film.

My Name Is Khan

This Karan Johar film talked about racial profiling that made the lives of thousands of South Asians terribly difficult in the post 9/11 world in the US. Its dialogue “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist” carried the essence of the film. While the film was accessorised with all the mainstream bells and whistles of a Shah Rukh Khan-Kajol starrer, its central premise spoke to a global audience.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist was based on the novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid. The highly acclaimed film was a hit in the festival circuit at the time and was seen as a South Asian person’s view on a global subject. While most films at the time were drenched in Islamophobia, The Reluctant Fundamentalist told its story from the point of view of a Pakistani American. The film starred Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland, Om Puri among others.