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Columns Eleanor Ringel Cater

After 20 years, reflecting on 9/11 movies and memories

Scene from "United 93" movie

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

It’s the 20thanniversary of 9/11.

Do you know where your memories are?

As a Baby Boomer, my longtime “where were you when…” touchstone was the Kennedy assassination. For my parents’ generation, I imagine it was Pearl Harbor.

But Boomers, greedy as we are, have two touchstones these days, the second of which we share (grudgingly?) with Gen X’ers and some Millennials.

“World Trade Center” movie poster

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was getting ready for work and was half-watching the Today show. Matt Lauer (now, there’s a saga) was interviewing an author and he paused to listen to something a producer was pouring into his earpiece. A plane had hit the World Trade Center.


Probably a small plane that had goofed up. They’d keep on it. Nice talking to you Mr. Author; now get out of here.  In the immediate moment, no one seemed especially upset. The feeling was more like, well, this is crazy. Hope not too many people got hurt.

But as reports began filtering in from downtown, the tone darkened. And the guessing-game got more intense.  Just what sort of plane was it. And, more crucially, was it an accident?

Then the second plane hit, and we were in terrorism free-fall.

A movie poster of “United 93”

As smoke bellowed from the Twin Towers, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff was summoned for a paper-wide conference as to what to do. Unfortunately, our top editors were the same people who pretty much bungled the Olympic bombing. Not bad folks, just…well, no one would mistake any of them for Ben Bradlee.

However, I was lucky. I already had an assignment. I’d agreed weeks ago to do a phone interview with Michael Douglas for his new movie, “Don’t Say a Word,” a thriller also starring Brittany Murphy. I was certain Douglas would want to cancel.

He didn’t. He wanted to get his movie out there, but even more, he wanted to go on record about the terrorist attack that was still unfolding. He was, as they say, mad as hell.

Most of Hollywood was mad as hell, but, mostly, no one knew what to do about it. Weeks later, in November 2001, Entertainment Weekly published an odd little poll asking stuff like “Has your taste in movies changed since Sept. 11 (75 percent – No, 24 – Yes) and “Will Hollywood reduce the amount of violence in movies in the wake of Sept. 11? Or will things go back to normal? (63 percent –  back to normal).

Truth to tell, Hollywood was more worried about what was already in the pipeline for the rest of 2001. Universal took a shot of the Pentagon out of “Spy Game.” Ditto “Vanilla Sky” where a last-minute edit left Tom Cruise standing on a skyscraper but erased the World Trade Center behind him.

Scene from “World Trade Center” movie

According to IMDB, there have been well over 30 movies and documentaries made about 9/11. I had to review two of them. One was Paul Greengrass’s “United 93,” a gripping, unforgettable in-real-time account of the events on United Flight 93 which crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, when passengers courageously took matters into their own hands (it’s the “Let’s Roll” story).

The other, more problematic, perhaps, movie was “World Trade Center,” about the last two survivors pulled alive from the World Trade Center. “Problematic” because it was directed by Oliver Stone, a man with a reputation for embracing controversial bombastic material. As it turned out, he was totally restrained (which didn’t really help the movie.)

Both films came out in 2006 – five years, I guess, being an appropriate time for a moratorium. However, the picture I’ll always remember, one I did not have to review, was released on television in 2002. It was a documentary, simply called “9/11.”

Scene from “United 93” movie

French filmmaker Jules Naudet and his brother Gedeon were working on a small-scale film about a FDNY rookie the day the planes struck the towers. Accompanying the firefighters downtown, the brothers found themselves, as they said, “in the eye of the storm…anyone 8,000 miles away, in front of a TV, knows much more than you do.”

But what they captured is what it’s like to be inside a nightmare.  There is confusion, chaos, minor acts of heroism. And, more than anything, at least in my memory, a sound. A thudding sound. The sound of bodies hitting the ground as desperate people leapt from the towers.

I don’t know if I could watch “9/11” again, but it’s worth knowing that the film is airing on CNN at 8 p.m. on September 11.

Maybe I should. Maybe we all should.

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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