How TV, movies have been used to process 9/11 tragedy for 20 years
Somewhere in the middle of "Worth," the new Netflix drama about the real-life September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, attorney Ken Feinberg (played with restraint by Michael Keaton) realizes that math alone won't be able to calculate what is owed for nearly 3,000 lives lost.
To convince family members to accept a financial settlement instead of suing the airlines involved — which could trigger an economic catastrophe — the man in charge of the government's plan will need to drop his clinical approach and listen to their stories, show compassion for their pain and understand the full scope of what they've suffered.
"I know, I know, I know. We're in the weeds here. That's where we should be," says Feinberg as he explains to his firm's staff why he is about to make the process that much harder to endure.
"Worth" conveys the agonizing aftermath of 9/11, the national tragedy that occurred 20 years ago this week.
Numerous TV specials are timed to the anniversary because it is important to remember what happened. But memories aren't limited to every five or 10 years. For two decades now, Americans have been processing their sense of fear, outrage and grief through scores of movies, TV shows and documentaries impacted by that fateful day in 2001.
The effect of 9/11 on popular culture has been huge, but not transforming. The sense of unity the nation felt immediately after the tragedy didn't last. The predictions that irony was over and gratuitous violence would lessen on the screen didn't come true. After the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, it felt as if everything would change. Yet here we are, still in the weeds and turning to artists and entertainers to make sense of it all.
Those of us old enough to recall that morning can remember turning on the TV and keeping it on for wall-to-wall news coverage. It seemed like regular programming would never return. When the shows did resume, it was stunning to discover that performers like late-night host David Letterman were as shaken as we were.
"It's terribly sad here in New York City," said Letterman on Sept. 17, 2001, his first day back on the CBS "Late Show.'" He delivered a somber, lengthy monologue that came from the heart and captured the sorrow and determination of the place he called "the greatest city in the world." The New York Daily News described it as "one of the purest, most honest and important moments in TV history."
Despite critics musing that comedy might never be the same, some laughter soon felt appropriate. It would take years before something like 2008's "Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay" would be conceivable. But less than a month after 9/11, "Saturday Night Live" dared to air a sketch in which Will Ferrell wore an American flag-patterned Speedo to an office meeting. It was a cathartic, hilarious statement on the limits of public displays of patriotism. The disrespect wasn't toward the tragedy, just our lame attempts to cope with it.
The responses to 9/11 ran the gamut of creativity from the raw grace of Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," the 2002 song about a firefighter walking up the floors of the World Trade Center in a courageous attempt to save others, to the sarcastic fury of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," a 2004 cinematic diatribe against the George W. Bush administration's pursuit of the Iraq war.
On the Fox series "24," which arrived in November 2001, terrorist plots drove the intense action as special agent Jack Bauer (a seethingly urgent Kiefer Sutherland) chased villains who often were Muslim and inflicted torture in between commercial breaks. A decade later, Showtime's "Homeland" offered a more sophisticated, conflicted version of a reckless hero, troubled CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). Even with its highbrow aims, "Homeland" offered the same problematic depictions of Muslims and off-the-books tactics for forcing suspects to spill their secrets.
For every stereotypical story line, there were others that strived for the truth about the post-9/11 world, including 2008's Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker," which chronicled the emotional toll a mission takes on a soldier (Jeremy Renner) tasked with defusing explosive devices in Iraq, and 2004-11's "Rescue Me," the bawdy FX dramedy focused on a New York City firefighter (Denis Leary) who self-medicates his survivor's guilt with drugs, alcohol and overall bad behavior.
And for each script with a caricature of a Muslim man or woman, there were authentic voices speaking up for inclusion and fairness. In March 2017, Riz Ahmed, who'd go on to earn a 2021 best actor Oscar nod for "Sound of Metal," gave a speech to Britain's House of Commons that addressed the importance of diversity in television.
"People are looking for the message that they belong, that they are part of something ... and that despite, or perhaps because of, their experience, they are valued. They want to feel represented. In that task, we have failed," said Ahmed.
His remarks were mentioned in a 2019 BBC article headlined "How Muslims Became the Good Guys on TV." It cited the move away from demonized Muslim characters and toward positive, multi-faceted characters being portrayed by actors like Zeeko Zaki, who plays special agent Omar Adom Zidan on the CBS hit "FBI," Ramy Youssef of Hulu's "Ramy" and Kumail Nanjiani of the indie rom-com hit "The Big Sick" and the upcoming Marvel movie "Eternals."
Some filmmakers attempted to re-create what it was like to be one of the victims of unfathomable horror. In 2006, "United 93" took viewers inside the flight that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, before reaching a target. The movie chronicled the heroism of passengers who, aware of the intent of the hijackers, banded together to stop further destruction. Made by acclaimed director Paul Greengrass, it was almost too accurate to bear.
Taking the opposite approach, Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," a 2006 drama about two police officers who were trapped by rubble yet survived the ordeal, attempted to be a feel-good saga. But how can a tale resonate as hopeful when scars run so deep and inevitably evoke the deaths of thousands of souls?
Indeed, the urge to avoid any triggering was so prevalent after 9/11 that the World Trade Center was edited out of or digitally removed from scenes in TV series like "Sex and the City" and films like "Zoolander." It took stories set prior to 2001 — like 2015's "The Walk," with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit, who walked a wire illegally suspended between the towers in 1974 (the subject also covered by the 2008 documentary "Man on Wire") for audiences to be comfortable with seeing the obliterated structures soar once again.
In 2011, Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times surveyed the post-9/11 landscape of art and entertainment and concluded that "the New Normal was very much like the Old Normal." But she presciently observed "an increasingly toxic polarization in our politics, and an alarming impulse to privilege belief over facts."
A decade early, Kakutani forecast the rancorous divide of 2021 America, where masks and vaccines have become fighting words during a pandemic, and where extremists invaded the U.S. Capitol over false allegations of a stolen election.
In the wake of unimaginable events, people make choices that determine not just their future but also their ability to retain their humanity. That's why a movie like "Worth" matters. The details of Sept. 11, 2001, are part of history now. But instead of reliving those moments, we should pause during this anniversary to re-evaluate what we have been doing, as individuals and as a country, ever since.
The takeaway of "Worth" is not what a life is worth in terms of money. It is about knowing what makes a life worth living.