For more than 30 years, the celebrated Twin Towers were iconic to films set in New York City. The buildings were as visually emblematic as Monument Valley’s spires are to westerns.
The 110-story structures, completed in the early 1970s, appeared in films before they were even finished. The construction site of what would become the World Trade Center is in 1971’s The French Connection. After they were both completed, the two buildings were in dozens upon dozens of movies. King Kong climbed them in the 1976 remake, and the Man of Steel soared past them in 1981’s Superman II. They stood tall in the background of 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance, and are seen frequently in Ed Burns’ 2001 film, Streets of New York.
These are merely a few of the movies in which the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center had bit parts.
In the immediate wake of their destruction on Sept. 11, 2001, filmmakers shied away from using them. For example, the ending to Men in Black 2 was reshot to have scenes with the Twin Towers instead center on New York City’s famed Chrysler Building. The structures were removed from the Spider-Man 2 trailer and film posters. The Twin Towers were also digitally erased from several shots of Ben Stiller comedy, Zoolander.
More than a decade after those tragic events, the World Trade Center towers have appeared in only a handful of films. In most cases, those movies are about the attacks or the aftermath. They are filled with footage of the Towers burning or sinking into themselves. Movies such as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Guys and, of course, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center.
For this article, I wanted to focus on films which were not about 9/11, or the events surrounding them. In these cases, the Towers were either digitally recreated or featured using archival footage to paint a picture of “old” New York City. The reasons for using them vary, from symbolism about terrorism to establishing the time period in which the movie took place. But in every case the Towers are honored in their former glory, not their final, tragic moments.
Gangs of New York (2002)
Martin Scorsese’s love for New York City has driven many of his films. Each picture depicts the Big Apple in different ways and during different times. Gangs of New York explored a relatively unknown period of racial strife and gang warfare in downtown Manhattan.
The final scene includes a montage that shows how the lower part of the city grew and developed. The Brooklyn Bridge and skyscrapers slowly fade into existence. It ends with the World Trade Center Towers appearing.
The film came out shortly after the events of 9/11. And while other filmmakers were removing images of the buildings, Scorsese opted instead to keep them in.
“From the first draft of the script, that was the way it ended, with the modern skyline of New York being built. It had to end with that, or the movie shouldn’t have existed,” he is quoted as saying about this decision.
“We did the paintings and edited that skyline sequence before September 11, and afterwards it was suggested that we should take out the towers, but I felt that was not the right way to go. It’s not my job to revise the New York skyline. The people in the film and the people of New York, good, bad, and indifferent, were part of the creation of that skyline, not the destruction of it. And if the skyline collapses, ultimately, they will build another one.”
Set in 1980, the Kurt Russell film centers on a coach who led the U.S. hockey team to an historic gold medal win over the Russians at the Olympics.
During one sequence, the U.S. team plays an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden. This part of the film includes a shot of the Twin Towers lit up at night.
The shot, which according to IMDB was the first time digitally recreated Towers were used in a film after 9/11, was reportedly a deliberate decision by the filmmakers to pay respect to friends they lost on the day of the attacks.
The Steven Spielberg film follows a group of Israeli agents who carry out a series of assassinations of those believed to be behind an attack that lead to the deaths of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Olympics.
In the movie’s final scene, one agent (Eric Bana) confronts his former boss (Geoffrey Rush) in a park in New York City. The two discuss the killings, and argue over whether or not they actually solved anything.
“There is no peace at the end of this, you know this,” Bana’s character argues.
The two go their separate ways, and the camera pans to reveal the Twin Towers in the background. It is followed by some text:
“Ultimately nine of the eleven Palestinian men originally targeted for assassination were killed.”
Spielberg intentionally draws a connection between the events depicted in Munich to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He makes the argument, through the final scene’s dialogue and the visuals and the epilogue, that the violence in the fight against terrorism only breeds more violence. And with that cycle the death count grows as the acts of destruction become bigger and more devastating.
The Tony award-winning musical was translated to the big screen by Chris Columbus. It’s beautiful songs and terrific actors helped turn this Broadway production into a good movie.
It’s use of the Twin Towers, shown in a simple night shot of downtown Manhattan as seen from Brooklyn, helps reinforce the time period. Rent takes place over a period of months from 1989 to 1990. The story deals with an array of social issues, none of which connect with terrorism or 9/11.
This film in a way helps re-establish the Twin Towers as symbols of New York City, and not just of tragedy and horror. Just a short view of them helps, instantly, to transport the viewer to a different time.
We Own The Night (2007)
Like Rent, this is a movie set in New York City’s past. The police drama spans 1988 and 1989, and centers on the relationship of two brothers (Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg).
Images of the Twin Towers are used in two key ways. The first was in one of the movie posters used to promote the film. The Towers were featured between Phoenix and Wahlberg in one of several ads. The two buildings also appear in a single scene in the film, once again between the two.
We Own The Night uses the Towers not as symbols of terrorism or violence, but as a visual metaphor for Phoenix and Wahlberg. Two strong-willed brothers constantly at odds who in the end stand together in defense of each other.
After 9/11, the Towers chiefly came to represent the attacks. This 2007 film extended the visual use of them beyond this limited view.
Definitely, Maybe (2008)
The brief cameo the Twin Towers have in this Ryan Reynolds romantic comedy is fairly straight forward. They are not meant as some deep symbolic moment or statement about terrorism.
Definitely, Maybe makes use of several flashbacks to tell its story. In one flashback Reynolds’ character looks out the window of his plane to see Manhattan, and the Towers are visible. It helps tell the audience these events happen in the past.
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)
This is the first instance of the Twin Towers being featured in an animated movie post-9/11.
Like Definitely, Maybe and Rent, the Twin Towers are here simply to provide the viewer with a visual indication that what they are seeing happened in the past.
In this case, the shot shows how Alex the Lion ended up at the Central Park Zoo (his crate fell off a boat and he floated to NYC). His wooden box floats past the Statue of Liberty, and in the background is the New York City skyline with the World Trade Center towers in full bloom. This apparently takes place in 1972, based on a newspaper that’s seen in a following scene (the buildings may not exactly be represented accurately, however, since Tower 2 was not completed until 1973).
The Wackness (2008)
This small, independent film by Jonathan Levine is set in the 1990s. He describes it as a “period piece” and a “love story” to his hometown of New York City.
The film ends with Ben Kingsley, who plays a shrink, seated on a bench and smoking a joint. It’s not clear where he is, but when the angle cuts to show what he’s looking at, we see he’s gazing at the Twin Towers.
According to Levine, “To me, it is the punctuation mark at the end of the sentence. I’m using that image as a note of bittersweet nostalgia. It has to be handled delicately, but at the same time, it’s a very powerful image. I didn’t want to shy away from it.”
It’s a lovely shot, one that – according to the film’s star, Josh Peck (of Nickelodeon’s Drake & Josh fame and a native New Yorker) – captures the essence of the film.
The Wackness is “a story of the loss of innocence,” he says in an interview on Cinema Blend. “When you see that scene with the [Twin] Towers — that day was a real loss of innocence for this city.”
Mary and Max (2009)
This film out of Austrlia is unique in that the image of the two buildings are seen in stop-motion animation.
“There are several reasons why the Twin Towers are still in the film,” says Mary & Max’s writer/director, Adam Elliot. “The first is because the film is set in the ’70s and ’80s… and they were still there.”
The use of the Twin Towers was also influenced by two of the film’s investors, Paul and Tom Hardart, who live in New York City, Elliot explains. Before production he asked them how they felt about featuring the Towers.
“They said, ‘If they were there at the time, then they should be there,’ so we made a very conscious decision to leave them in,” he says, noting that they didn’t go out of their way to make them prominent. But “they had quite a presence on the New York skyline, so you can’t leave them out.”
The film tells the story of Notorious B.I.G., a mega-watt rap icon who was gunned down in Los Angeles in 1997.
Brooklyn-born Christopher George Latore Wallace helped define East Coast rap, at the center of which was New York City.
There isn’t any special significance to the image of the World Trade Center seen in the motion picture. It merely serves to show the city as it was during that time.
Set in the 1980s, this bloated adaptation of the highly celebrated graphic novel takes place in an alternate universe, one in which costumed vigilantes really exist.
New York City serves as the backdrop to this dark tale. In several scenes, the Twin Towers are visible in the distance.
While it makes sense for the buildings to appear in the film simply because of the time period and the setting, Zach Snyder likely included them in order to represent something more. The Towers effectively foreshadow a key aspect of the film’s plot. (This will tread upon spoiler territory, just a warning for those who haven’t seen the film or read the book.)
At the core of Watchmen is a secret plot to destroy New York City. But it’s a plot with a purpose, one that echoes 9/11.
With the Cold War raging and threatening to quickly become a real war, someone schemes to create a kind of terrorist attack that would help unify global enemies against a common foe. A foe that could be a deadly threat to everyone. And the plot works.
The 9/11 attacks had a very similar effect.
For a period of time, nations all over the world came together in goodwill. Governments who had once been hostile to one another found common ground, forming new bonds of cooperation.
As suggested in Watchmen‘s final moments, however, the goal of the villain’s elaborate plot to ease political tensions would eventually unravel. Not unlike what happened after 9/11.
Kill the Irishman (2011)
This excellent true story is about an Irish crook named Danny Greene who rose to power, and gained quite a few enemies, in the late 1970s.
Set in Cleveland, Greene’s problems begin when he pisses off the mafia in New York City over some stolen cash. It is this connection to the Big Apple that allows for the view of the Towers to be used.
The view of the buildings is really just a means of establishing the era and location, similar to Rent or Notorious. In fact, the view of the buildings is pretty much the same shot but during the day.
Fringe (Season 1 finale, 2009)
While this list is dedicated specifically to movies, I didn’t feel it would be complete without mentioning Fox’ Fringe.
This is a science fiction series that deals with mad scientists and crazy medicine. The existence of a parallel universe was one of the central concepts in the show.
In that alternate universe, the attacks of 9/11 did not happen. This twist was revealed with great effect at the end of the show’s first season. There was little reaction to this by critics, which always surprised me. But the series, while not about real-world terrorism, has always addressed terrorism in a sci-fi context. So while it could be easy to accuse the producers of using the Towers for mere shock value, depicting a universe in which the terror attacks of Sept. 11 didn’t happen fits the show’s tone.
For more films that include images or shots or photos of the Twin Towers, both before and after 9/11, visit World Trade Center in Movies (http://wtcinmovies.tripod.com/2000.html).