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IMAGE: "World Trade Center"
Francois Duhamel  /  AP
By 2006, when the Nicolas Cage film "World Trade Center" was released, Hollywood filmmakers were a little more comfortable with addressing the attacks onscreen.
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updated 9/13/2011 9:13:36 AM ET 2011-09-13T13:13:36

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was living in New York, covering entertainment and reviewing films for The Associated Press. I had a typically random, frivolous day planned: a screening of "The Glass House"; an interview with Carson Daly; and a hair appointment to get my highlights touched up.

None of that happened.

But I'll never forget the title of the movie that was in my calendar that day, a thriller starring Leelee Sobieski. For many of us critics, "The Glass House" ended up being the first movie we saw once we struggled to return to reality after the attacks, and its manufactured scares seemed so cheap and crass compared to the real horrors we'd all just witnessed.

Approaching entertainment in general, and movies specifically — especially those set and shot in New York with images of the twin towers — was a tricky proposition in the weeks and months following 9/11. There was, of course, the broader question: When is it appropriate to enjoy ourselves again? But studios debated how to be respectful in releasing films that featured images of those iconic, fallen buildings. They wanted to strike the right tone, but there didn't seem to be a right answer.

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Story: Hollywood struggles with 9/11 films

The twin towers were so instantly recognizable, so majestic and evocative. In a movie such as "Working Girl," they're a beacon of promise; in the classic poster for Woody Allen's "Manhattan," they even form the letter H. Do you eradicate them entirely to avoid upsetting the audience? Or do you leave them in, because they existed when the film was being made?

"Glitter" is probably best-known now as a laughably self-serving star vehicle for Mariah Carey. But it happened to come out just 10 days after the terrorist attacks, and included a couple of shots in which the twin towers are visible in the background. At a screening in a Times Square multiplex, those images drew the only cheers and applause.

Story: See the Twin Towers rise again in movie clips

Then there was the comedy "Zoolander," directed by and starring Ben Stiller, which came out Sept. 28. The towers were erased from the finished print, which was jarring. A scene in which Derek Zoolander gives the eulogy at a funeral for his male model roommates, who die in a gasoline explosion inexplicably played for laughs, also struck an awkward note, especially with the New York City skyscrapers gleaming behind the cemetery.

The romantic comedy "Serendipity," starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, was released less than a month after 9/11, but it takes place in a Manhattan that is so idyllic, so romantic, it probably never existed. Shots of the World Trade Center in a version that screened at the Toronto International Film Festival were excised after the attacks for maximum movie-going happiness.

Story: In 9/11 movies, it's little moments that touch us

Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Collateral Damage" was postponed from an October 2001 release to the following February; even though it takes place in Los Angeles, it's about a terrorist plot to blow up buildings. It was the most high-profile example of Hollywood's attempt to be sensitive, even though "Collateral Damage" was, in retrospect, just another big, loud, dumb Schwarzenegger movie.

But as time went on, filmmakers began feeling their way around the tragedy with what appeared to be a bit more comfort and confidence. The police drama "City by the Sea," starring Robert De Niro and James Franco, came out on Sept. 6, 2002. It had been filmed all over New York City in early 2001 and contains several prominent images of the World Trade Center towers. This struck a somber chord upon the one-year anniversary of the attacks, a time when the city collectively was on edge once more, and sent a ripple through the screening I attended. Still, I was glad to see the towers remain in the film, because that was an accurate reflection of what the city looked like during production.

A few months later, we had "25th Hour," one of my favorite movies of that year and one of Spike Lee's best. Naturally, being a filmmaker who personifies New York, Lee wouldn't dream of avoiding the attacks. His unflinching title sequence focuses on the downtown skyline as it appeared around the one-year anniversary, with two beams of light stretching skyward from the spot where the towers had stood.

Story: 10 years later, TV still has trouble capturing 9/11

Later, Edward Norton's character visits his father at the bar he owns in Staten Island — a firefighter hangout with memorials on the walls to the men who died. And Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman have a long conversation in front of a picture window in Pepper's high-rise apartment, which overlooks ground zero. Hoffman asks whether Pepper plans to move, since the air quality downtown is so bad.

"(Bleep) that, man," Pepper responds. "Bin Laden could drop in next door — I ain't movin'."

Five years after the attacks, Oliver Stone approached the towers head-on with "World Trade Center," starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as a pair of Port Authority police officers trapped beneath the rubble of the collapsed towers. The prevailing wisdom was that Stone would inject some pointed political perspective in depicting this tragedy; instead, he offered an exceptionally crafted, strongly acted, high-end made-for-TV movie. It's visceral and intense, exceedingly faithful in its depiction of the fear and chaos, the ash and smoke that enveloped New York that day.

Eventually, the buildings again became a welcome sight. James Marsh's Oscar-winning documentary "Man on Wire" (2008) traces tightrope-walker Philippe Petit's death-defying high-wire act between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.

The film is hugely engrossing, but it also harkens to a simpler, more innocent time. A skywalk such as the one Petit pulled off would be impossible today; security is too tight and too pervasive in every segment of our daily lives. And that's because of what happened on Sept 11, 2001 — a date that never arises in "Man on Wire" because Marsh wisely realizes he doesn't need to mention it. The absence of the towers — and the reason for their absence — is implicit throughout the film, which adds a level of unspoken yet inescapable poignancy.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: 9/11 myths debunked?

  1. Closed captioning of: 9/11 myths debunked?

    >>> conspiracy theories about the events of the tragic day still persist but a new book claims to debunch most of those theories. debunking 9/11 theories. conspiracy theories . the publication spearheaded this. let's start with the more prominent theories. let's start with those and put those up on the screen for you. these are some of the ones that we all heard from folks. first of all, american air defense ordered to stand down. world trade center building 7 professionally demolished. missile military jet struck the pentagon. you looked into all of these. what did you find?

    >> popular mechanics has been looking into how buildings are built and how planes crash for more than 30 years. we thought we had really drilled down on the theorys that you're asking and they turned out not to be the case. the buildings fell down as a result of primarily fires and the impact of the crashes themselves and as far as the pentagon, hundreds of eyewitnesss who saw the plane hit the building.

    >> how do things like this even gain traction in the first place?

    >> well, every major event leads to conspiracy events. it started right after 9/11 and a lot of people have political motivation. they have a villain that they want to blame for an event like this and rather than looking at all of the facts and then drawing a conclusion, they select a handful of solutions that they think supports their point of view. so we try to look at those facts and they turn out to be distorted or just something that was mistaken in the original coverage and they don't hold up.

    >> since 9/11 we have learned a great deal. what have we learned?

    >> exactly right. you know, because not only was it a great tragedy but it was also great engineering failures, that the towers fell down and world trade center 7 that did not fall down, that's been a big conspiracy. as they've vepthed that, it's been investigated and it makes things safer and they were not as resistant to the fire damage that they should have been.

    >> conspiracy theories , it's also big business . we should note that there are a lot of people making money off promoting theories like this.

    >> i don't know what you call a lot of money. for some of these authors and stuff, they get flown around the world to give lectures, they sell a lot of books, they have radio shows , and, yes, there are certain people that have an interest in promoting these views and ultimately i think the mainstream media has been slow to respond.

    >> veteran chief, popular mechanics , looks like a fascinating read.

    >>> coming up in just a

Photos: September movies

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  1. 'Apollo 18'

    Stars: Lloyd Owen, Warren Christie

    Director: Gonzalo López-Gallego

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    Think there wasn't an "Apollo 18" lunar mission? Think again. Decades-old found footage from the supposed secret expedition reveals the reason the U.S. has never returned to the moon. Hint: Didja see "Alien"? (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 'The Debt'

    Stars: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Tom Wilkinson

    Director: John Madden

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    "The Debt" begins in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Mirren) and Stefan (Wilkinson) about their former colleague David. The group supposedly tracked down a Nazi war criminal in 1966 -- or did they? (Miramax Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'Shark Night 3D'

    Stars: Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan and Alyssa Diaz

    Director: David R. Ellis

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    The title, "Sharl Night 3D," says it all. But sharks in a freshwater lake? Hollywood will do anything to get the blood, bikinis and severed limbs flying in 3-D. (Relativity Media) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'A Good Old Fashioned Orgy'

    Stars: Jason Sudeikis, Leslie Bibb and Tyler Labine

    Directors: Alex Gregory, Peter Huyck

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    In "A Good Old Fashioned Orgy," Jason Sudeikis and pals have partied for years at his dad's beach house. But when dad (Don Johnson) announces he's selling the place, his son decides it's time for the ultimate party. (Samuel Goldwyn Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 'Contagion'

    Stars: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law

    Director: Steven Soderbergh

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    Have your face masks ready -- you'll want one after seeing "Contagion." The action thriller follows people trying to survive a lethal virus. Big stars abound, and it sure looks like from promos that things don't go well for Gwyneth Paltrow. (Warner Bros) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 'Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star'

    Stars: Nick Swardson, Don Johnson and Christina Ricci

    Director: Tom Brady

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    "Bucky Larson" is a kid from the Midwest who moves out to Hollywood in order to follow in his parents footsteps -- which for him, means becoming a porn star. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 'Warrior'

    Stars: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Joel Edgerton

    Director: Gavin O'Connor

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    In "Warrior," two estranged brothers face the fight of a lifetime. Nick Nolte plays their alcoholic dad, who trains one to eventually land in the ring against the other in a mixed martial-arts tournament. (Chuck Zlotnick) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'Straw Dogs'

    Stars: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and Alexander Skarsgard

    Director: Rod Lurie

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    "Straw Dogs" is a remake of the 1971 Dustin Hoffman thriller, infamous for its controversial rape scene. L.A. screenwriter David Sumner relocates with his wife to her hometown in the deep South. There, while tensions build between them, a brewing conflict with locals becomes a threat to them both. (Screen Gems) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'I Don't Know How She Does It'

    Stars: Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan and Kelsey Grammer

    Director: Douglas McGrath

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    "I Don't Know How She Does It" is a comedy centered on the life of Kate Reddy (Parker), a finance executive who is the breadwinner for her husband and two kids. Based on the best-selling novel. (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Drive'

    Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston

    Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    In "Drive," Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman. After a heist goes wrong, he discovers that a contract has been put on his life. (Richard Foreman Jr Smpsp / FilmDistrict) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 'Moneyball'

    Stars: Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright and Jonah Hill

    Director: Bennett Miller

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    Brad Pitt stars as Oakland A's manager Billy Beane in "Moneyball," based on Michael Lewis' book. The focus is on Beane's attempt to create a competitive team despite Oakland's unfavorable financial situation. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 'Abduction'

    Stars: Taylor Lautner, Lily Collins and Alfred Molina

    Director: John Singleton

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    In "Abduction," Taylor Lautner plays a young man who sets out to uncover the truth about his life after finding his baby photo on a missing persons website. (Lionsgate) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. 'Dolphin Tale'

    Stars: Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr.

    Director: Charles Martin Smith

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    IThe 3-D film "Dolphin Tale" is is inspired by the true story of a bottlenose dolphin named Winter who lost her tail in a crab trap. Her human friends work frantically to create a prosthetic so she can still swim. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. 'Dream House'

    Stars: Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts

    Director: Jim Sheridan

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    The beautiful home in "Dream House" is more of a nightmare. Soon after moving in, a family learns that a mother and her children were brutally murdered there. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. '50/50'

    Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick

    Director: Jonathan Levine

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    "50/50" is a comedic account of a 27-year-old man's cancer diagnosis, and his subsequent struggle to beat the disease. (Summit Entertainment) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. 'Killer Elite'

    Stars: Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro

    Director: Gary McKendry

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    Action film "Killer Elite" focuses on a retired member of Britain's Elite Special Air Service (Jason Statham) who is forced into action when his mentor (Robert De Niro) is taken hostage. His mission: kill three assassins dispatched by their cunning leader (Clive Owen). (Open Road Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 'What's Your Number?'

    Stars: Anna Faris, Chris Pratt and Chris Evans

    Director: Mark Mylod

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    "What's Your Number?" refers to the number of men a woman has slept with. Anna Faris plays Ally, a woman whose number is 20, as she looks back at those men wondering if any of them are her true love. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
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