NEW YORK – It was the most significant, life-changing event in modern American history.
And after years of remaining mostly silent on the subject, Hollywood finally seems ready to gingerly broach Sept. 11, 2001 (search): The day 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial jetliners, attacked New York City and Washington and brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center (search) in lower Manhattan.
“It was absolutely inevitable that it would penetrate our storytelling,” said Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University. “It was the flashpoint to all kinds of things we’re living today — from a war to airport security. It’s natural that movies and TV would absorb it.”
Two films — one from Paramount Pictures, the other from Universal Studios — and a miniseries on ABC are due out in 2006, when it will have been five years since the tragedy that set the country and the world on a different path.
NBC had also planned a miniseries of its own, but scrapped it suddenly without explanation.
A third movie, "The Great New Wonderful" (search), about life in New York after 9/11 starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, made a splash at the Tribeca Film Festival in the spring.
The National Geographic Channel aired a four-hour documentary, "Inside 9/11" (search), last month. And this Sunday, Sept. 11, the Discovery Channel will broadcast a film of its own, "The Flight That Fought Back," (search) about Flight 93.
But whether America is ready to see Hollywood’s renditions of the tragedy is another matter.
“I certainly would never watch them,” said Theresa Riccardelli, 43, whose husband Francis worked for the Port Authority (search) and died in the attacks while he was directing people out of the towers. “I’d do everything I can to insulate my children from seeing them. That kind of thing is just salt in the wounds.”
The Paramount Pictures project, an as-yet untitled feature film about two Port Authority officers who were the last survivors to be rescued from the World Trade Center wreckage, is directed by Oliver Stone and stars Nicolas Cage, Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello and Michael Pena.
"Flight 93" (search), the Universal movie, has British director Paul Greengrass at the helm and will recreate what happened on the hijacked airliner that crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers tried to wrestle control of the plane.
“Movies … can, and indeed should, address the actual events that shape our lifetime,” Universal said in a statement. “As the world approaches the five-year anniversary of the tragedies of 9/11, we think it is legitimate, and even necessary, for today's leading filmmakers to be given the opportunity to investigate the events of that epochal day.”
The ABC miniseries, starring Patricia Heaton and Harvey Keitel, will be hinged on "The 9/11 Commission Report" (search) that came out last July.
The Discovery Channel will air on Sunday “The Flight That Fought Back,” which uses actual voice recordings of crew and passengers, interviews with family members and re-enactments to paint a minute-by-minute picture of what happened aboard the doomed plane.
And last month, the National Geographic Channel's gripping, in-depth documentary on the attacks and the events leading up to them drew record ratings for the cable channel.
"Inside 9/11," which aired over two days, weaves information about the hijackers; footage of a few of the men going through security and getting money out of an ATM; audio of a flight attendant on board one of the flights; chilling memos warning of Usama bin Laden's plans before Sept. 11; video of the tragedy as it was unfolding; and interviews with officials and family members.
"There's been this avalanche of detail that's come out and hasn't been organized in any form," said the documentary's executive producer, Michael Cascio. "We put this in context [and examined] what was happening in the world for this to happen. It was pretty powerful."
One explanation for the flood of projects all at once is that the film and TV industries have decided the public can handle the subject matter now that four years have passed.
“It really was just a matter of time before they decided to take this on,” said Missy Schwartz, a correspondent for Entertainment Weekly who wrote about the forthcoming Sept. 11 projects. “Hollywood is always looking for dramatic stories.”
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there were few treatments of them in film or television, other than an occasional TV episode; some specials about the Twin Towers; the play-turned-movie "The Guys" (search) starring Sigourney Weaver, about a fire captain who lost eight men in the World Trade Center collapse; and Michael Moore's controversial documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" (search), which slammed the Bush administration for its actions before, on and after Sept. 11.
Some wondered whether mainstream Hollywood would ever decide to address 9/11 on a wider scale. Insiders say it could not be ignored and the delay was partly out of respect and partly because of the time it takes to develop a major motion picture or miniseries.
"This was a sacred day — a very delicate kind of thing," Thompson said. "There was that little period where there was a no-fly zone on this subject matter, with a few exceptions. Probably now, enough time has passed and we're getting new perspective on this."
And with any monumental, life-altering occurrence, looking at Sept. 11 from a distance can provide perspective, insight and even catharsis.
"If you're in a car crash or some other traumatic event, in order to come to grips with it, you have to look at the facts, at what actually happened," Cascio said. "Then you can understand it and move on."
But some are worried about the delicate subject matter and caution filmmakers to treat the topic with kid gloves.
"Obviously we don't stand for censorship," said Jennifer Mincin, executive director of Families of September 11 (search). "But what we do ask is that writers, producers and media outlets understand people are going to have a range or reactions and there needs to be some sensitivity."
Stone and Paramount seem acutely aware of that mission and are said to be filming a picture focusing on the heroism of the Port Authority officers who are the lead characters.
Furthermore, they're shooting most of the movie in Los Angeles because of New York City's concerns about upsetting people by recreating the scenes of horror in lower Manhattan.
Similarly, Universal is tuned into the need for handling Sept. 11 with care on the silver screen. Its movie is also one about heroics.
"We do not deny that this is difficult material," the studio said in its statement. "We are confident that Paul's film will dignify the memory of those on that flight. ... We trust his sensitivity and insight on this project."
Filmmakers know they're breaking new ground with their upcoming projects and will likely be heavily scrutinized because of that.
"They're treading carefully," Schwartz said. "They're not going in blindly. They know how difficult a task they have ahead of them."
And some of those directly affected by Sept. 11 believe such projects have merit because they keep the memory alive in a culture known for its short attention span.
Though she can't bring herself to watch any TV programs or films about the attacks, 9/11 widow Francine Raggio said they're important reminders of what happened.
"Even though the families get hurt and the children get hurt seeing it, maybe it would be good for people to see it again," said Raggio, 58, whose husband Eugene worked for the Port Authority and perished that day while helping others out of the towers. "Americans forget very quickly."