September 11, 2001 was one of the darkest days in American history. As we know, four planes hijacked by terrorists, flew into the Pentagon, the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, and into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania killing several thousand people on the planes and on the ground.
Since those tragic events, millions of people have tried to make sense of that day including filmmakers who have applied their talents to making movies and documentaries about 9/11. While movies like 12 Strong, Lone Survivor and American Sniper are certainly related and undoubtedly connected to 9/11, the movies we selected are movies about 9/11 directly.
Here are USAMM’s five 911 movies that are must-see. They aren’t ranked in any particular order.
1. Man in the Red Bandana (the ESPN version)
While there is a full-length version narrated by Gwyneth Paltrow, we picked the ESPN version not only because it is narrated by Edward Burns who played Pvt. Richard Reiben in Saving Private Ryan, but mostly because the ESPN version is so concentrated with raw emotion. Not to mention, the way the story is presented sucks you in from the opening scene which has a camera flying over water and heading into downtown Manhattan. And then you hear Edward Burns ask a powerful question.
The short documentary which runs less than 15 minutes long tells the viewer about Welles Crowther, a young New Yorker finding his way in the world when 9/11 happened. A lacrosse player, he was known as the ultimate teammate while playing at Boston College.
He was known to carry a red bandana his father had given him and it was sort of his personal trademark.
This is probably the best of the 911 movies out there not because it is a cinematic masterpiece, but because it tells a wonderful story, of an incredible human being. We don’t want to give too much away, but if you are looking for 911 movies to watch, start with this one.
Be ready. This probably the saddest of the 911 movies to watch. However, it will make you proud to learn some of the things that went on inside of the World Trade Center on 9/11.
2. World Trade Center
We are always a little partial to movies made by veterans because, well, many of us here at USAMM are veterans and we are a veteran-owned and operated business. World Trade Center, made in 2006, was created by Oliver Stone, a Vietnam infantry veteran, and Bronze Star Medal recipient. He is best-known for his movie, Platoon, but also known for blockbusters like Wall Street.
Starring Nicholas Cage (Code Talkers) and everyone’s favorite World War II tank driver from Fury, Michael Pena, the movie tells the story of two New York Port Authority Police officers who get trapped in the rubble of the World Trade Center after it collapses on them. The movies is based on anecdotes shared with the filmmaker by survivors of the 9/11 attacks.
What makes this movie one of the 911 movies that you have to see is that it is also a true story. While the Man in the Red Bandana includes interviews with real people, Stone’s movie is done with actors, but it still delivers an incredibly moving message about what happened that tragic day and how first responders reacted to it.
Out of all the 911 movies, World Trade Center shows just how gritty the American spirit can be, but it also shows the commitment that the men and women of New York City’s fire and police departments have for each other.
Cage and Pena who aren’t necessarily known for their range as actors to some people are amazing in this movie and they convincingly come across as the heroes they portray. They are able to easily convince viewers that they are the everyday heroes that were involved in the tragedy that day.
There are few 911 movies that include actual people from the attacks. The two main characters played by Cage and Pena, the real-life heroes, are actually in this movie.
It is an exhausting movie to watch because it is hard to imagine the resolve these two men must have had to survive in that rubble. Hard to believe those buildings collapsed on top of them and, spoiler alert, they survived.
3. The Falling Man
Also released in 2006, this documentary by Henry Singer did not do as well as we thought it should, but maybe that is because of the subject matter. This documentary tells the story of a news photo captured by AP News photographer Richard Drew.
The photo shows a man falling to his death from the World Trade Center and Drew captured the man as he fell headlong to the ground. Some found the photo offensive and callous. Others thought it was an incredible piece of photojournalism which captured the horror of 9/11.
What the documentary does is give a face, an identity, to the person known as The Falling Man. The documentary humanizes the victims of 9/11. This is one of three 911 movies that is a documentary in our USAMM list.
The documentary forces the viewers to think, ‘what would I have done?’ It is believed that the man either slipped trying to escape the flames intensely burning in the building, or he jumped, fearing he would burn to death.
What The Falling Man does is make the viewer realize that all of the people who died that day were just going about their business, living their daily lives when the horrific attacks occurred. Nobody could have thought something like this would have happened.
4. United 93
This movie also came out in 2006 and it was made by Paul Greengrass who specializes in making films about historic events. The movie was based on the report created by the 9/11 Commission.
If you’re looking for big name actors, or some mellow dramatic storyline, you won’t find it here. This movie is factually based and that alone makes this movie a must see on our 911 movies list.
As we know, the passengers of United 93 learned that three other planes had been hijacked so when they knew that their plane had fallen into a similar fate, they took matters into their own hands and fought back. The 9/11 Commission later determined that United 93 was supposed to be flown into the U.S. Capitol or the White House by the terrorists.
The tension is tangible, and the use of not-so-famous actors allows the viewer to really invest in the characters since we’ve never really seen them before. We don't get distracted by the fact that we know them from other movies. They become the heroes on that plane.
What is painful to watch is the fact that everyone on that plane must have known that they were going to die and yet, as passenger Todd Beamer said, “Let’s roll,” they fought back and saved the lives of others. The plane hit the ground, upside down at more than 500 m.p.h.
5. Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror
We’re including this one in our 911 movies list even though it is a documentary series because it helps tell the full story of 9/11. While this series can often lean politically depending on the episode, it’s investigation and content is solid.
Created in 2021 for Netflix, this five-part series dives deep into why 9/11 happened and how the United States responded. The key to watching this series is that you have to approach it with an open mind and avoid allowing any bias to influence you as you watch.
Our list of 911 movies is certainly not exhaustive, but if you are looking to reconnect with that horrible day, maybe even just to educate others, you can’t go wrong with watching any of these aforementioned recommended films.
If you have younger family members who are mature enough to handle the subject matter, all of these movies serve as great educational tools to teach others what happened on September 11, 2001 and why it is important to remember not just the day, but all of those that we lost.