Stephen Prince


On his book Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism

Cover Interview of September 08, 2009

In a nutshell

9/11 was one of the most photographed events in history, and in the years that followed numerous films investigated, profiled and sought to understand what happened on that day and how such a calamity could occur.  As years pass and the events grow more distant in time, film portraits of what happened on 9/11 grow more salient as a form of social memory.

Firestorm examines the influence of 9/11 on American filmmaking.  How have filmmakers portrayed the attacks?  Have the accounts been balanced, factually honest or politically partisan?  What are the meanings of 9/11 as proposed by filmmakers?  What role does narrative as used in film play in fostering or, alternatively, in inhibiting our understanding of 9/11?

I examine Hollywood films, made-for-television series and movies, as well as docudramas and documentaries, including the burgeoning documentary sub-genre of conspiracy films.  The Hollywood films include high profile movies such as Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center as well as many films, such as The Dark Knight, which are not overtly about 9/11 but which nevertheless obliquely reference the attacks using the conventions of popular genres.  The made-for-television material includes Fox’s series 24 as well as PBS’ documentary series on al Qaeda and terrorism, America at a Crossroads.  Documentaries include Fahrenheit 9/11 and numerous nonfiction films about the Iraq War and the events at Abu Graib.

This is a large and diverse group of films.  Within their portraits, there is not a single 9/11.  There are many, with meanings that are in contention, that are fought about and argued over.  While commercial film and television initially were hesitant about exploring 9/11, they successfully adapted and formatted this tragedy according to the conventions of popular entertainment.  In contrast, documentary filmmakers looked deeper and probed more incisively at the event.