Five years ago, on the fifth anniversary of the September 11th tragedy, two films depicting the day’s events were released. First, on April 28, 2006, United 93 was released from Bourne director Paul Greengrass. Then on August 9th 2006, World Trade Center came out, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Nicolas Cage. Some controversy was mixed in with the anticipation for the release of the films; however, there was no real uprising in opposition to the films as the families of those depicted in the movies gave their full blessings to the production. Many families saw the films as a way to further battle any possible complacency with the terror of the day and a way to further honor the fallen heroes – as well as those who lived to tell their stories.
United 93 is an incredibly realistic view of the events on September 11th from the perspective of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the inside of the flight number 93 from United Airlines. It was the fourth hijacked plane on September 11, 2001 and was thought to be intended to destroy the United States Capitol building in Washington DC. Being late to depart, the other three planes reached their targets and passengers aboard the plane were able to converse with their families, learned of the probable fate of their own flight, and fought to take control of the flight. It was the only one of the four plans not to reach its intended target, instead crashing near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, about 150 miles northwest of Washington.
The director cast many real-life participants in the events to play themselves, such as Ben Sliney, the FAA’s Operations Manager, who made the decision to shut down all air traffic in the United States. Interestingly, Sliney was the newly appointed Operations Manager and his first day on the job was September 11, 2001. In the film, when he walks into the control center, he receives a round of applause. In efforts to keep the film as realistic as possible, as if we as viewers are watching actual video taken on the day, details like this are not explained in the film, they simply occur.
Many other officials in the control room portray themselves in the film. Likewise, air traffic controllers who were in the Newark control tower on 9/11 and those who witnessed the air attacks on the World Trade Center play themselves. The pilots and flight attendants on board United 93 in the film are played by actual pilots and attendants who work for United Airlines.
All families of all 40 passengers and crew members killed on board the flight cooperated with the production of the film. They provided director Greengrass with detailed background information about their loved ones. There are passengers few names mentioned in the film for two reasons. First, to emphasize the group effort over individual heroies and secondly to portray the fact that they were strangers and didn’t know one another’s names.
Several family members of passengers aboard the flights attended the premiere to show their support. At 111 minutes, the film runs the same length of time as Flight 93. The film remains one of the more chilling and intense dramas of the decade.
World Trade Center tells the miraculous story of two Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, who were trapped beneath the rubble of the collapses South Tower. About ten hours after they were buried, in the dark of the night, two volunteer Marines heard a muffled cry for help. 3 hours later, after painstaking work to free him, Jimeno was pulled out. It took 12 hours to free McLoughlin from the rubble – and then, doctors kept him in an induced coma for six weeks as he underwent 27 surgeries.
McLoughlin and Jimeno have since retired, with McLoughlin residing in New York with his family and Jimeno in New Jersey with his family. Both men assisted in the writing and production of World Trade Center, in an effort to honor the men of their team that did not survive the collapse. With their assistance, the film was made incredibly accurate.
Nicolas Cage was the first actor to receive a copy of the script, although Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and George Clooney were all in talks to portray McLoughlin at one time. Production of the film was split between New York and Los Angeles. The City of New York strictly prohibited any recreation of the destruction of chaos of the attack. Filmmakers could not even film people standing at Ground Zero and looking up, as if reacting to the original attacks. They could, however, film teams driving through the streets of New York to reach the site. Then, 240 tons of material were used to re-create a fully three-dimensional Ground Zero in LA. As a demonstration of preserving dignity, the film does not show the planes crashing into the towers. In fact, one of the more memorable images from the film is in the first few minutes when Will Jimeno witnesses an eerily low shadow of an aircraft against a building, followed by the ground shaking below him.
Although New York City understandably did not allow a recreation of the day, the New York Port Authority fully supported the films production, allowing filming on location in their headquarters. They also contributed many extras to the scenes and provided authentic uniforms and equipment. Over fifty former officers were flown to LA to be used as extras on stretchers and on the streets walking around.
In preparation for their roles, Nicolas Cage spent hours in a sensory-deprived tank to capture fear and claustrophobia. Michael Peña was invited to live with Will Jimeno and his family. Both the real life officers appear in a barbecue celebration scene at the film’s finale.
There is only one detail of the film that has been pointed out as being inaccurate. Although audiences believed the former Marine character Dave Karnes played by Michael Shannon was a fictional addition to the story, his storyline actually occurred. Upon seeing the events on television, Karnes left his accounting office in Wilton, Connecticut to help with the devastation at Ground Zero. There, Karnes met a man he knew only as Sgt. Thomas – whose identity would not be fully discovered until the release of World Trade Center. Together, Thomas and Karnes worked to find survivors and eventually heard the faint cries of Jimeno and a near-dead McLoughlin. Because of the unknown identity of Sgt. Thomas, producers hired a white actor to portray him. When his identity was discovered during the release of the film as Jason Thomas, a black man, producers apologized for the miscasting. Thomas laughed it off and asked that there be no concern for the mistake, stating, “I don’t want to shed any negativity on what they were trying to show.”
As with Thomas’ words, World Trade Center accurately portrays some of the more miraculous, and beautiful pieces of the human spirit on a day clouded with terror.