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9/11 attacks: Five screen retellings, new and old

On the 20th anniversary of the World Trade Centre attacks, we pick five stories — documentaries, TV series, films — good and bad, to revisit the fateful day

Written by Tanushree Ghosh |
Updated: September 11, 2021 5:43:28 pm
9/11A still from the new five-part documentary 'Turning Point 9/11 and the War on Terror' (2021) (Courtesy of NETFLIX / ©NETFLIX 2021)

On September 11, 2001, terror gripped America and would inform its life thereafter. It would also alter lives across the globe – Middle East, Southeast Asia, Latin America and more. The twin-tower attacks changed the course of the 21st century. Of how the world would perceive America thereon, a mutant superpower. It led to the Taliban returning to control Afghanistan 20 years later, last month. While much has been written and filmed about 9/11, what led to it and the offensive unleashed thereafter, on its 20th anniversary, let us revisit the horror and the tragedy with documentaries, TV series and films – the good and the bad. Here are five:

Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror

Where to watch: Netflix

The newest release, this year’s documentary – one season, five episodes – looks at “the most consequential terrorist attack in the history of mankind” and the “sense of profound upheaval, dislocation, chaos, uncertainty in the hours after the attacks” in colour and black-and-white, in archival video and image footages. Archival sound-bytes of victims, like the late flight attendant Betty Ann Ong, the first to report the hijacked planes. Interviews of survivors (“No one knew who had attacked…why they had attacked…what attacks were coming next…why do they hate us?”) and of US officials, former Afghan vice-president Ahmad Zia Massoud (anti-Taliban Northern Alliance’s Ahmad Shah Massoud’s brother), warlords and Taliban commanders. From the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to Trump’s call to leave as “music to Taliban ears”. The composite documentary looks beyond the singular 9/11 incident.

Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror

Where to watch: YouTube

American journalist John Pilger’s 2003 documentary presents a personal view of “the truth and lies in the ‘war on terror’”. It follows post-9/11 America, and its offensive in Afghanistan and the Iraq War. It shows Arefa, whose house and eight family members were bombed by Bush’s Operation Enduring Freedom (October 2001). She witnessed her husband’s chest and hand, daughter’s neck and back break into pieces, and collected daughter’s flesh that was stuck to the floor in a plastic bag. The late Rita Lasar, whose brother died in 9/11, helped bereaved Afghan women (through her NGO Peaceful Tomorrows) get compensation, and young Marina, of Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan, speaks of gender-based violence. Pilger shows “who really is responsible for far greater acts of violence from those committed by al-Qaeda fanatics, crimes that claimed many more lives than 9/11, devastated faraway places, from Latin America to Southeast Asia”. The rise of an imperial “terrorism that never speaks its name”.

The Looming Tower

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

The 2018 TV miniseries, one season with 10 episodes, based on Lawrence Wright’s 2006 eponymous book, opens with a tracking aerial shot, before panning over on America. It traces the rising threat of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the late 1990s, the rivalries between the FBI and CIA, their respective counter-terrorism divisions, l-49 Squad in New York and Alec Station in Washington, DC, fighting for intel, despite the goal being one – to prevent a looming attack on the US. A classic example of how infighting/internal fissures eases the work of external enemies, and how it could have been prevented. The TV show, interspersed with real footages (Bin Laden’s interview to BBC’s John Miller, etc.) is meant for entertainment, and appears so in the fictional flamboyant private life scenes of American special agent John P O’Neill, played by Jeff Daniels, who died in 9/11.

Zero Dark Thirty

Where to watch: Netflix

Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 gritty drama is the search to nail down the most-wanted man on the planet, and eliminate him, at last, in May 2011, in Pakistan’s Abbottabad. A tough Maya (Jessica Chastain won the 2013 Golden Globe for the role), a fresh recruit in CIA’s Black Sites where detainees are interrogated/tortured to reveal Bin Laden’s location, she doggedly pursues any and every lead. Dark isn’t just in the film title, it threads through Bigelow’s slow-burn, divided in chapters, and, well, it is pretty long (almost 3 hours) for those not used to Bollywood films of yore. Actor Ronit Roy apparently had turned down this Oscar-winning film for Karan Johar’s Student of the Year (2012). A heavy cross for him to bear.

World Trade Center

Where to watch: Netflix

Oliver Stone’s 2006 film begins with a bang and then fizzles out. It would put trash Bollywood to shame, with its mythologizing of its hero (Jesus appearing with a bottle of water), and flashes of sentimentality, and scenes where nothing seems to happen. All that jars and mars. The only thing good and watchable about this enterprise are the scenes with Nicolas Cage, as the 1993 bombing veteran Sgt John McLoughlin, and Michael Pena’s Will Jimeno – two of 20 found alive at Ground Zero – immobilised, trying to keep each other alive. These sections, in close-ups, the dust and claustrophobia feel real, palpable. But that’s about it. The film that upholds the idea of America and Americanism, family, faith, is a disaster. How can a film based on true events go bad? Cage aside, this disaster film, as the genre is called, is truly a disaster.

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