From ''The Rising'' to ''Rescue Me'' to ''United 93,'' here are the movies, songs, and pop-culture events that helped us mourn the 2001 terror attacks

By Gary Susman
September 11, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Billy Joel: Kevin Mazur/

Unforgettable Sept. 11 tributes

The tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, makes pop culture — maybe all culture — seem trivial. How could anyone translate the shock and horror of that day into popular art? Nonetheless, musicians, writers, and filmmakers have grown increasingly willing to address the attacks and their repercussions, with several high profile TV and movie projects due in the months ahead. As we mark the fifth anniversary of that day, looks back at some of the most memorable works of art and entertainment created in response to 9/11 and examines how those works have helped us cope.

”Holy F—ing S—: Attack on America,” The (2001) The editors of the satirical newspaper The Onion had a post-9/11 challenge when they created one of the first responses to the event — how, after all, do you crack jokes about a tragedy? But on Sept. 26, the produced a whole issue that managed to strike just the right tone. Among the headlines: ”U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We’re at War With,” ”Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell,” and ”God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule.” They even took aim at their own sensibility in an article headlined ”Gen-X Irony, Cynicism May Be Permanently Obsolete.” ”This earnestness can’t last forever,” a fictional source noted in that story. And, for better or worse, it didn’t.

The Concert for New York City (2001) As big, noisy, and messy as the great city it celebrated, the Oct. 20, 2001, VH1-aired charity show was an exuberant Irish wake. Kevin Smith offered a hilarious short film in which New Jerseyans expressed their profane regrets for the tragedy. The Who played a monstrously loud, life-affirming set (their last performance with the late John Entwistle) that led the grieving cops and firefighters to pump their fists in the air. Long Islander Billy Joel — playing with a fallen firefigher’s helmet on his piano — got tears flowing with deeply felt versions of ”New York State of Mind” and the suddenly topical ”Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).” And then, of course, there was the firefighter who got onstage and invited Osama bin Laden to kiss his ”royal Irish ass.”

”Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning,” Alan Jackson (2001) Yes, the line about not knowing the difference between Iraq and Iran is embarrassingly insensitive. But other than that lapse, Jackson’s country hit illustrates how 9/11 affected Americans everywhere, turning Middle Americans and Southerners into New Yorkers for a while: ”Where were you when the world stopped turning that September day?/ Teaching a class full of innocent children? Driving down some cold interstate?” Jackson sings over a gentle, rootsy backing band, complete with weeping steel guitars.

The Rising, Bruce Springsteen (2002) The men and women who died in the World Trade Center were husbands and wives, sons and daughters — and quite a few of them were also Springsteen fans, as we learned in The New York Times‘ ”Portraits of Grief” series. The Boss took note, and responded in summer 2002 with the 9/11-themed The Rising, his strongest album in years. The simple, mournful ballad ”You’re Missing” is sung from the perspective of a spouse who’s lost a loved one: ”The evening falls/ I have too much room in my bed/ Too many phone calls.” And the bluesy ”Into the Fire” marshals the power of the E Street Band behind a firefighter’s tale: ”Love and duty called you someplace higher/ Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire.”

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) You may disagree with his politics, but it’s hard to dispute Michael Moore’s ability to craft a resonant and, yes, entertaining argument. Scratch a satirist and you’ll find an idealist, in this case, one who felt that America squandered the opportunity to rise to the occasion with a shared sense of purpose after the attacks. A lot of moviegoers on both sides of the political fence apparently felt the same way, making this the top-grossing documentary in history.

Rescue Me (2004-) Having recently wrapped its third season on FX, Denis Leary’s series, about New York firefighters who are clearly still suffering from the trauma of 9/11, presents its characters as haunted, violent, selfish, profane, misogynist, and flawed in myriad other ways. In other words, human. But Leary doesn’t shortchange his characters’ heroism, or their humor.

In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman (2004) Living in lower Manhattan during the attacks and in the weeks that followed, Spiegelman had a bitter epiphany: Now he understood firsthand a fraction of what his father had endured during the Holocaust, from the foul air to the sense of pervasive denial. Just as he had recounted his father’s travails in Maus, the cartoonist found that the graphic novel an apt way to recount his own experience of the unthinkable.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer (2005) Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter famously proclamed that irony died on 9/11; in this novel, Foer seems to be trying to prove Carter right. Nine-year-old prodigy Oskar searches New York City for human connection in the wake of his father’s death at the World Trade Center. The earnestness of the child’s quest lends real poignance to what readers might otherwise dismiss as authorial gimmickry, like Foer’s now-famous flip-book section of reverse-order photographs in which a plummeting victim seems to rise back into the tower unharmed.

Saturday, Ian McEwan (2005) This novel is set in London in 2003, but from an early passage about a plane screaming across the sky, the story is suffused with the low-level dread that so many people feel on a daily basis after 9/11. McEwan’s protagonist, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, is a man of reason and science who, on a single day, learns that his civility may not be enough when terror and violence strike at home.

War of the Worlds (2005) Steven Spielberg’s alien sleeper-cell invasion saga deftly translates the familiar imagery of 9/11 — the wind-borne debris, the ash-covered survivors, the forlorn collages of flyers bearing the faces of the missing — and turns them into haunting pop art. The film ends on a hopeful note, though the fear and paranoia it depicts aren’t so easy to dispel.

United 93 (2006) Two 2006 films prompted questions of whether we were at last ready to see the events of Sept. 11, 2001, depicted on the big screen as entertainment. And while for some viewers it was indeed too soon, many were ready to see such a film as long as it was made with taste and empathy. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center had those, though it lacked context, presenting the rescues at the collapsed towers like any other tale of heroism in the face of catastrophe. Paul Greengrass’ United 93, which depicted in real time the horrors and heroics of the hijacked flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field instead of hitting the U.S. Capitol, may prove to be the more enduring work of art. Rooted in documentary-style specifics, it captured the anxiety and dread of 9/11, and its ending reflected the uncertainty over what’s next that we feel to this day. (Cowritten by Brian Hiatt)

Which response to 9/11 did you find most memorable?