Spoiler alert: Plot twists for various movies ahead.
In some ways, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were just too earth shattering to take in. And in the ensuing movies about the attacks, it was often small scenes and lines that stood out, whether they aimed straight at viewers' hearts or provided a small moment of levity.
'World Trade Center'
Nicolas Cage, as a police officer surviving the tower collapse, is finally wheeled into the hospital. His agonized wife, Maria Bello, has been frantically trying to get to him. When they’re allowed to see one another, Cage’s line, “You kept me alive,” coming near the end of an already emotionally charged movie, is the get-out-your-handkerchief moment.
'Reign Over Me'
Adam Sandler? As a mourning 9/11 widower? It’s probably what kept audiences away in droves: His fans didn’t want to see him in a 9/11-based drama and his non-fans didn’t want to see a 9/11-based drama with him in it. But Sandler shuffling around his empty apartment, locked away from humanity, lost in grief, is more moving than anyone expected.
'Man On Wire'
A moving, exciting documentary from 2008 about tightrope walker Philippe Petit. In 1974, Petit decided to walk on a wire between the Twin Towers. The archival photos of the actual event succeed in recalling a moment in history when the sight of the famous skyscrapers evoked hope and achievement.
Like so many other post-9/11 movies set in New York that never actually address the actual attacks, this briskly paced heist movie from Spike Lee is shot through with plenty of bitter, dark comedy informed by the event, specifically a scene where police interrogate a cantankerous young man in a turban who, exasperated, barks, “I’M A SIKH!”
You might think that the rousing “Let’s roll!” scene of this movie would be its takeway moment. But it's the final shot, providing a cockpit pilot’s point of view of the inescapable and rapidly approaching ground that sticks forever, erasing inspiration and replacing it with chilling horror.
In what is essentially a romantic drama about an emotionally wounded young woman (Emilie de Ravin) and her equally damaged boyfriend (Robert Pattinson), the World Trade Center attacks are employed as a twist ending meant to wring tears. For audiences not paying attention to subtle calendar cues placed throughout the movie, one scene serves as the “Gotcha!” moment: Pattinson stares out the window of his father’s office while the camera slowly pulls back to reveal that he is standing inside the WTC and in the path of what will, in moments, be an oncoming plane.
Call him manipulative, but Michael Moore knows how to pull news footage to make a point, especially when he employs footage of then-President George W. Bush on a golf course smoothly transitioning from grave warnings about terrorism to jokingly teeing off on the green: “We must stop the terror," Bush tells the cameras. "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive.”
Dave White is a film critic at movies.com.