09/09/2011 09:10 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2011

Filming The Unfilmable: Hollywood's Attempts To Chronicle 9/11

In late 2002, CIA officers at Guantanamo Bay reportedly rented the 1998 Roland Emmerich flick "Godzilla." The film had largely failed to engage the interest of even the most explosion-happy action fans, but the agents were not looking to be entertained. Abu Zubaydah, a high-ranking al Qaeda operative, had confessed to them under interrogation that the terrorist organization had made plans to blow up "the bridge in the Godzilla movie." Had the officers been familiar with the movie they would have known he was talking about the Brooklyn Bridge.

The possibility that a Saudi terrorist knew more about Hollywood than a roomful of American intelligence officials may be obvious in its irony, but isn't unlikely. The men who conceived of and carried out the September 11th attacks were infatuated with American entertainment (the young Bin Laden was said to have been particularly taken with "Bonanza").

The template for the Hollywood action movie is the Western, and it must not have been hard for the jihadis to picture themselves in that landscape, not because of all that sun and sand but because of the bitter loneliness of the archetypal gunslinger hero.

"One man," intones the generic Hollywood trailer voice, "in a world of chaos and destruction." That was how al Qaeda saw the modern world -– chaotic and bent on destroying them. It was the Wild West, and they were the lonely pioneers -- the few brave enough to stick up for the rest. Yet not even they could resist the charms of that most hedonistic, capitalistic and American of institutions: Hollywood.

Hollywood had fertilized the imaginations of the attackers, so it makes sense that the destruction of the World Trade Center had the "infuriating perfection" of a Hollywood spectacle, as the journalist Lawrence Wright puts it in "My Trip To Al-Qaeda," a documentary about his quest to understand the historical origins of the attackers' ideology (a quest that resulted in his seminal book "The Looming Tower"). And yet, ten years later, Hollywood has yet to come up with a definitive depiction of what happened that day. It was one of the most dramatic events in American history, and Hollywood's reaction has been to mostly ignore it.

It is not as though the trauma of the attacks spoiled audiences' taste for spectacles of destruction. In the years since 9/11, movie producers have destroyed New York at least twenty times –- in "The Day After Tomorrow" (with ice), "I Am Legend" (with a virus), "Cloverfield" (a monster) and "War of the Worlds II: The Next Wave" (Martians), among others.

But none of those apocalyptic scenarios bear much resemblance to anything real. Disaster movies thrive on outrageousness: watching a giant insect tear the head off the Statue of Liberty wouldn't be so much fun if the idea of that actually happening wasn't so ludicrous. And as opposed to "Pearl Harbor," or most other Hollywood depictions of real disasters, a 9/11 movie would have had to deal with a disaster that had already played out more times on more TV screens than any other single disaster in history. Which, of course, was exactly what its authors had intended.

Despite these impediments, Hollywood was not entirely devoid of people up for the challenge. The most famous was Oliver Stone, whose decision to cast Nicholas Cage in a 9/11 movie ten years after "Face/Off" did little to dispel the perception that the director had long ago lost touch with reality. (The film, "World Trade Center," was overwrought and bad.)

And there was Paul Greengrass, the director of the second and third "Bourne" installments, who somehow managed to sell investors on an assiduously researched documentary-style recounting of the harrowing story of United Airlines Flight 93.

"United 93" was gripping and powerful. And upsetting. It did reasonably well at the box office, but not so well that anyone else in Hollywood was tempted to touch the subject.

In a different era, those two films might have stood as cinema's most prominent memorials to the event, despite the obvious artistic failings of the first and the commercial limitations of the second. As it happened, though, the attacks of 9/11 and the chain of events that followed coincided with the golden age of the feature film's long-neglected sibling, the documentary.

For the first time in history, advances in technology permitted documentary filmmakers to encroach on the aesthetic and commercial turf of the big-budget Hollywood production, while elevating the home video to the sphere of mass entertainment.

By 2001, cheap, consumer video cameras were so widespread that someone could have cut together a feature-length film about the attacks just with the footage taken by ordinary bystanders.

Dana O'Keefe, an executive producer of "My Trip To Al Qaeda," suggested that the rise of the documentary has changed the way we experience films in general. "Non-fiction films have become the iconic representations of war," he said. "If you look at the documentaries that have that addressed these recent conflicts, from 'Armadillo' to 'Gunner Palace', what you see is that these films employ the grammar and language of narrative filmmaking in a way that is far more visceral and compelling than any equivalent narrative feature, which by comparison is inherently artificial -- and we now experience that as fundamentally inauthentic."

If the Hollywood disaster movie trades in the superficial pleasures of spectacle, the currency of the documentary is information. Simply by staking a claim to the truth, even the most lighthearted documentary promises to alter the viewer's perception of reality, and few documentaries have done so more ardently than those that attempted to shape our perception of 9/11.

There are the "inside job" conspiracy rants, for example, which have been watched millions of times on YouTube, and there are the responses to those tirades, which have garnered a passionate following of their own. There is "My Trip to Al Qaeda," which illuminated the mind of the terrorist, and "The Power of Nightmares," which made the provocative case that the terrorist and the neocon were co-dependent sides of the same dirty coin.

And then there was Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which argued that Bush and his cohorts had used the tragedy as a false justification for a stupid and sinister war. It's impossible to talk about that film without pointing out that it earned 120 million dollars at American box offices alone, six times as much as any documentary that came before it.

What makes this achievement stand out most, though, is not just that it seemed to usher in an era of documentary blockbusters –- "March Of The Penguins," "Planet Earth," "An Inconvenient Truth" –- but that the movie made some 50 million dollars more than "World Trade Center." When it came to dealing with 9/11, documentaries like Moore's offered what only the most unconventional Hollywood version could have hoped to deliver – interpretation, explanation, meaning.

On Sunday, the tenth anniversary of the attacks, television audiences will see the meaning of that day revisited again. Included in the day's planned programming is "Rebirth," a documentary by Jim Whitaker, which will have its TV premiere on Showtime that evening.

"Rebirth" is different from the other 9/11 films, and it could only have been released now. Rather than parsing the the attacks themselves or the global events surrounding it, it follows five people who were either injured or bereaved as they live through and cope with their pain, year after year. It's a simple and affecting movie, and it comes closer than any other to capturing what 9/11 meant on a personal level. And notably, like "Fahrenheit 9/11," it contains no images of the planes hitting the towers.

"There was a part of me that felt like I didn't know if people needed to see them again," said Whitaker in an interview. Those images were already seared in our minds. The terrorists had planned it that way. What we wanted were movies that could help us understand them.