On September 11, 2001, the whole world stopped. From America to the rest of the world, people watched in horror as the World Trade Center collapsed on their TV screens, killing almost 3,000 people.
This tragic landmark in US history has been a touchstone for many movies since. There are many angles to the tragedy worth exploring, and each one sheds further light on how this devastating attack affected all kinds of people—even the least expected ones.
From court dramas to war movies, here are the best movies that are either based on or connected to the September 11 attacks.
10. Dear John (2010)
The bulk of Dear John doesn't center around 9/11, but the event does play a key role in the context of the plot. Based on the 2006 novel by Nicholas Sparks, Dear John is a tale of war-torn lovers whose long-distance relationship is damaged by 9/11.
Before returning to his Army base, John (played by Channing Tatum) and Savannah (played by Amanda Seyfried) vow to write each other letters and remain long-distance.
Unfortunately, the 9/11 attacks mean John remains deployed for much longer than anticipated. What was meant to be a separation of weeks turns into a separation of years.
If you've never heard the term "Dear John letter," it's when a break-up letter is sent to a soldier. Based on that, you can guess what Savannah does next...
Lasse Hallström's adaptation might be a little cliché at times, but his resistance to taking big risks makes this a safe crowd-pleaser film with strong central performances.
9. Remember Me (2010)
Remember Me is a romance-drama with a little more direct impact by the September attacks than Dear John. Set in rainy New York City, Remember Me is tinged with an air of tragedy from the get-go.
Tyler (played by Robert Pattinson) audits classes at NYU, where Ally (played by Emilie de Ravin) also studies. Tyler starts dating Ally to get back at her father, the policeman who arrested him after a bar fight... but he eventually falls in love with her for real.
So, where's the tragedy? Well, Tyler reveals that his brother died of suicide years ago, and Ally's mother was mugged and shot to death.
Furthermore, Tyler has a strained relationship with his workaholic father (played by Pierce Brosnan), which concludes with him visiting his father on the 10th floor of the North Tower on September 11th.
The twist ending divided many viewers, with some complaining that it was a shameless attempt to salvage a sluggish storyline, while others praised Allen Coulter's daring choice that genuinely shocks.
8. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011)
Get your tissues out because this one's a weeper! Based on Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close centers on a child whose father (played by Tom Hanks) died in the Towers.
Thomas Horn plays the nine-year-old boy Oskar Schell, whose autism makes the loss even more difficult to process.
Oskar is sent home early from his New York school one random day in 2001. He returns home, alone, to six messages on the answering machine that were all sent from his father with his last goodbye.
Stephen Daldry's drama shows the tragic impact of 9/11 on the victims' families, where Oskar's mother (played by Sandra Bullock) struggles to juggle her grief with the lashings out of a handicapped child.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was a controversial contender for the Academy Awards. Some critics thought it moving and relevant, others exploitative and pretentious, and others simply ignored it altogether. One thing everyone can agree on? The superb performances.
7. The Mauritanian (2021)
The Mauritanian is a legal drama film that mostly takes place in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Mohamedou Ould Slahi (played by Tahar Rahim), a suspected terrorist working with 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, is imprisoned at Guantanamo for six years.
Mohamedou's case is complicated, as he was tortured and his confession was coerced by Guantanamo guards, who threatened to arrest and rape his mother. Criminal defense lawyer Nancy Hollander (played by Jodie Foster) takes his case to US court.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald, The Mauritanian is a movie that demands your full attention, so put your phone away while you watch. Macdonald never makes Mohamedou's innocence or guilt clear, instead choosing to focus on the inhumanity he endured.
Rahim delivers a poignant and sympathetic performance as the real-life prisoner who wrote the memoirs The Mauritanian is based on.
6. Vice (2018)
In one of Christian Bale's chubbier roles, he plays former US Vice President Dick Cheney. Adam McKay's bold black-comedy tracks Cheney's life from 1963 (as an alcoholic college dropout) to present day (as the most powerful Vice President in history).
It's a pretty big jump, filled with lots of ups, downs, and government jargon. Critics were divided on McKay's political satire, with opinions ranging from unfocused and messy to ambitiously Oscar-worthy. (Vice is now the worst-reviewed movie to get a Best Picture nomination!)
So, where does 9/11 come in? Cheney was Vice President to George W. Bush, who served from 2001 to 2009. After the Twin Towers fell, it was Cheney—alongside Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—who helped initiate America's invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
5. Worth (2021)
Director Sara Colangelo asks an impossible question in Worth: How much money is a life worth? It's a real question that a team of people, led by US attorney Kenneth Feinberg, had to answer in 2003.
Played by Michael Keaton, Kenneth must deduce how much each casualty of the September 11 attacks is worth.
The victims' income, outcome, contributions to society, responsibilities, families, etc. were all to be taken into account. The final sum would then be sent to their surviving loved ones as compensation.
At first, the gang takes a formula-based approach to sifting through thousands of cases, but they eventually learn that no two lives are the same and each must be dealt with individually with care.
Reducing a whole person down to one monetary figure—and deciding which lives are more valuable than others—is a pretty inhumane job. But it's a job that someone had to do... and better for it to be done by a fair man than a cold, money-driven one.
4. American Sniper (2014)
Any film about the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq can be considered in the 9/11 canon, but we're going to pick one to represent them all.
Starring Bradley Cooper, American Sniper is Clint Eastwood's war biopic following the life of deadly Texan marksman Chris Kyle, which ended up being a resounding box office success.
American Sniper trails Chris's journey from ranch rodeo to US Navy SEAL sniper. Across his four tours of Iraq, Chris killed 255 people—a new military record that earned him the nickname "Legend."
He was a major player in the controversial war, which occurred as a result of 9/11 and lasted between 2003–2011.
No matter how much training you get, no moral man can kill that many people and still live an ordinary life. As a result of his service, Chris's home life suffered greatly due to his PTSD and flashbacks.
American Sniper deals with the personal side of 9/11's aftermath, showing its ricochet effect on those who aren't direct victims.
3. 25th Hour (2002)
Spike Lee loves going over the top with his movies, and that includes 25th Hour, which takes us to the streets of New York City. In this film, Monty Brogan (played by Edward Norton) is about to spend seven years in prison for dealing drugs.
During his last 24 hours of freedom, he decides to reconnect with various people in his life and tie up various loose ends.
25th Hour is an interesting movie pick for this list because it doesn't deal directly with 9/11. Why is it included? Because it was mainly praised for how Lee depicted the atmosphere of New York following the 9/11 attacks, when nothing was quite the same.
25th Hour isn't a sentimental melodrama or footage-filled documentary; rather, it incorporates the tragic event into its history. Memorials and the Tribute in Light are kept in shot, nodding to the reality of a post-9/11 world where roadworkers still linger in the dust.
2. The Report (2019)
Films have four approaches to the topic of 9/11: a documentary or real-life account; its ripple effect on victims and families; the wars sparked by the attacks; or the political and business sides of the tragedy. In Scott Z. Burns's The Report, he takes the last approach.
Adam Driver plays Daniel J. Jones, a Senate staffer who leads an investigation into the 2005 destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes. Switching between time periods, we're also taken back to 2001 when George W. Bush gives the CIA permission to detain suspected terrorists.
The torture methods used on suspects is put under a microscope. Daniel sacrifices his life to work through thousands of files, day and night. The plot is way too exhaustive to fit here, but just know that it's an intelligent and eye-opening movie with a great cast!
Fair warning: If you don't understand or enjoy intricate procedural lingo, perhaps give The Report a miss.
1. Zero Dark Thirty (2013)
While we could've included Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war thriller The Hurt Locker, her other film Zero Dark Thirty is a little more explicit in dealing with the topic of 9/11.
Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, and Kyle Chandler star in this gritty Oscar-nominated drama about the arduous manhunt for terrorist organizer Osama bin Laden.
It took nearly a decade to find and kill the man behind the attacks, who was tracked down by CIA operatives and slain on May 2, 2011.
Any film about an event like this is bound to generate controversy. For Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow was accused of pro-torture propaganda for depicting the efficacy of torture methods inflicted by the CIA.
Fun trivia fact: A lot of the plot information in Zero Dark Thirty was charged with spawning from classified government information, but the crew denied accessing it.