Top 10 Movie References To The Twin Towers

Over the years the World Trade Centre’s now-gone Twin Towers in New York have attracted a significant amount of cinematic attention – both before and since they were tragically brought down on the morning of September 11, 2001. Mark Fraser looks at 11 films in which these once prominent skyscrapers dominated the Manhattan skyline.

10. The Valachi Papers (Terence Young, 1972)

Although set in the early 1930s, the pair of buildings can be seen at night – while still under construction – when gangster Joe Valachi (Charles Bronson) drives his car off a pier into the East River while on the run from the police. What a blunder! Coincidently, in Peter Yates’ crime caper The Hot Rock, which also came out in 1972, the unfinished towers appear briefly in the background during a hair-raising helicopter sequence. In this instance, though, their inclusion is not visually criminal as the story takes place in contemporary times.

9. (TIE) Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998)

Despite their sheer height, the skyscrapers are still no match for a giant tsunami which hits the US’ eastern seaboard after a giant meteor hurtles into the Atlantic Ocean. Interestingly, the wave doesn’t bring them down – it merely engulfs them.

9. (TIE) Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998)

Top 10 Films of Steve Buscemi

Both World Trade Centre (WTC) I and II survive a meteor shower that sprays Manhattan, although they are missing a few decent chunks once the ordeal is over. It is a good thing these space rocks weren’t full of jet fuel – otherwise the buildings may well have “dustified”* while quickly collapsing into their own footprints. (*A term used, and possibly coined, by Dr Judy Woods, a US-based materials engineering expert who believes the towers were destroyed by a directed energy weapon.)

8. AI (Steven Spielberg, 2001)

A.I: Artificial Intelligence

First appearing on screens just months before 911 occurred, director Steven Spielberg chose to include WTC I and II as part of the mostly submerged New York skyline post the rising of the oceans (on the back of global warming) in this science fiction opus. One can only wonder if he will do what he did with a reissue of 1982’s ET – when he replaced police guns with walkie talkies – and digitally remove the buildings from any possible re-release of the movie.

7. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)


Again Spielberg exploits the Twin Towers’ iconography by having them in the background during the movie’s closing credits just after Mossad hitman Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) meets his handler Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) in a park somewhere along the Queens/Brooklyn section of New York’s East River. Their inclusion potentially sends a double-edged message, particularly to conspiracy theorists. On the one hand it seems the director – who inserts a written epilogue that states: “Ultimately nine of the eleven Palestinian men originally targeted for assassination were killed” – was making an obvious connection between Islamic-associated terrorism (a la the Munich Olympics in 1972) and 911, while, on the other, subliminally attempting to distance Israel from the destruction of the towers.

As far-fetched as the latter may seem, it is a proposition which holds some water given the theory that the Jewish nation perpetrated the crime has gained quite a bit of momentum over the years – especially in the books of writers like American investigative journalist Christopher Bollyn, who believes Mossad (and ergo the Israeli Government) was behind the planned demolition of the buildings. Admittedly this observation is a little flawed as Israel’s alleged connection to the event did not have the same momentum in 2005 as it does today. Nevertheless, there are those who started questioning the official 911 narrative pretty much straight away, with the September 11 arrest of the so-called dancing Israelis – reportedly members of a Mossad surveillance team seen celebrating on the bank of the Hudson River in New Jersey as the buildings burned and collapsed before them – adding early fuel to the Truthers’ fire.

6. 11’09“01 – September 11 (Various, 2002)

Three of 11 vignettes – all of which run 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame – directly or indirectly show the towers under duress on September 11, 2001. “France”, directed by Claude Lelouch, concerns itself with a troubled deaf French couple living in Manhattan when the buildings fall. Lui (Jerome Horry) goes off to work, while Elle (Emmanuelle Laborit) tries to write him a Dear John letter as a television in the other room broadcasts the tragedy (their apartment vibrates when the collapses occur,  but otherwise she remains oblivious to the carnage outside). He returns covered in dust – a stunned survivor who now resembles a ghost. Is it enough to rescue their relationship? This remains the lingering question as the episode concludes.

Meanwhile, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Mexico” is predominantly a harrowing audio collage from recordings made during the day with only a few brief just-as-disturbing visual snippets – that being a few of the WTC jumpers falling to their deaths. Finally there’s Sean Penn’s maudlin “United States of America”, in which some light is literally brought into the life of a grieving widower (Ernest Borgnine) after the collapse of the towers – seen only as shadows on a wall – allow a new ray of sunshine into his tiny apartment. Despite this strangely moving moment, it is not enough to relieve his overall anguish.

5. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, 2011)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

After Manhattan jeweller Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks) dies during the collapse of the North Tower, his precocious son Oskar (Thomas Horn) embarks on a personal odyssey to try and preserve his father’s memory. Along the way he finds his estranged grandfather (Max von Sydow), discovers the (sometimes eccentric) frailty of the human condition and, eventually, is emotionally re-united with his mother Linda (Sandra Bullock). During the course of the movie WTC I is seen burning – along with its twin – via flashback, while the moment of its demise is also captured briefly on television, a telephone answering machine as well as a brief dream sequence in which Thomas is seen plummeting to his doom.

4. Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1981)

Escape for New York

As part of his plan to rescue the US President (Donald Pleasance) from a fortified Manhattan Island and retrieve an audio cassette which contains a message that is vital to averting global war, convicted mercenary Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) lands a glider on the top of the South Tower before embarking on his mission. Although this science fiction movie obviously got a few of its predictions wrong, at least director John Carpenter’s futuristic oversight isn’t as bad as Spielberg’s AI effort given the movie is set in 1999 when the skyscrapers were still standing.

3. King Kong (John Guillermin, 1976)

King Kong (1976)

Rather than climb up the Empire State Building with his kidnapped object of desire (Jessica Lange) as his predecessor did with Fay Wray in the original 1933 version of the film, this incarnation of the titular giant ape instead chooses to scale (what looks like) WTC II before being heavily machined gunned by the military. Pumped full of lead, he eventually plummets 415 metres to his death.

2. World Trade Center* (Oliver Stone, 2006)


Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of this film is the fact part time conspiracy theorist and political pundit Oliver Stone chose not to look into any suspected foul play behind the buildings’ destruction (and that of WTC 7, which at least he acknowledges; it’s hard to believe there are still some people out there who do not know about its seemingly impromptu demolition by complex lease owner Larry Silverstein) and, instead, predominantly focuses on the heroic-fused melodrama surrounding three real life New York firemen (John McLoughlin, Will Jimeno and, to a lesser extent, Dominick Pezzulo as played by Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena and Jay Hernandez respectively) who are trapped in an elevator shaft beneath the rubble of WTC II.

Aside from the fact it all gets a bit dull after the three buildings cave-in, one of the white rescuers, Scott Strauss (Stephen Dorff), is based on African American Jason Thomas. Stone – who once accused American journalism of generating stories that were “generally wrong” while promoting his 1991 conspiracy opus JFK – must take the burden of responsibility for this quite bizarre perversion of the truth. (*Being a subject of the British Empire, the author would have preferred to use Centre. However, the title of his second-hand Blu-ray contains the American spelling, hence the semantic inconsistency in this entry.)

1. The Walk (Robert Zemeckis, 2015)

The Walk

If anything, this work is as much a reverent and loving tribute to WTC I and II as it is to the real life tightrope artist whose achievement it celebrates. Watching Frenchman Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) walk the wire between the two towers – a feat he unbelievably performed on August 7, 1974 – is a terrifyingly giddy and quite exhilarating experience. The fact the whole story is, until this point, played out like a heist movie just adds to the fun. It’s difficult to imagine there is, or will ever be, a better feature film nod to the Twin Towers than this.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

Over to you: what are your favourite movie references to the Twin Towers?

Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser
“Salvador” Is More Revolt Than Revolution | “The Deer Hunter” Remains An Adult Fairy Tale | “The Train” Still One Hell Of A Ride | “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own” Maintains Its Irreverent Grip | Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive” Is A Hard Act To Swallow | William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” Is A Curiously Mistreated Masterpiece | “To Catch A Thief” Shows Hitchcock Dabbling In Blandness

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Avatar
    Roger Keen Reply

    Very interesting list. Some of these I haven’t seen in ages. I know I’ve watched The Valachi Papers at some point but I remember very little about it.

    It’s curious – perhaps ironic in a macabre way – that the twin towers were featured in so many disaster movies. It’s telling of their stature in the New York skyline, of course. But it’s almost preemptive of the towers’ fate and has a even more sombre tone when seen now.

    That shot of the towers in Munich is an interesting one. It feels a little forced even if the message might be mixed. I’ve never like that Spielberg chooses to hold his camera on the towers. Perhaps a little subtlety would have been in order. But then again, who am I to talk – I couldn’t have made Jaws!

  2. Avatar
    Callum Reply

    Fascinating top 10, Mark. It makes for uncomfortable reading when you think back to what ultimately became of the towers. But it’s great that cinema allows them to have an indelible mark on the New York City skyline even if they’re not there anymore.

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    CineGirl Reply

    I have to say I found The Walk incredibly dull compared to the excellent documentary made about Petit’s feat (2008’s Man On Wire). That said, it IS a glowing tribute to the Twin Towers and the photography during “the walk” is dizzying in how effectively it captures the height and grandeur of these buildings.

  4. Dan Stephens
    Dan Stephens Reply

    Really great read Mark.

    I wasn’t a big fan of The Walk because I felt the lacklustre drama didn’t hold a candle to the actual “walk”. Zemeckis’ work usually works well for me but in this case, the spectacle outweighed everything else. But I had goosebumps watching the stuff of him on the wire.

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    Paul L Reply

    Some others: They glow in the sunlight in Three Days of the Condor, and there’s fleeting glance at them during construction in 1971’s Klute. There’s something weirdly ethereal about that image now. I also remember seeing them from ground level in Trading Places.

  6. Avatar
    Rory Reply

    It was striking at the time of release but Lumet presents a now even more profound image of the Twin Towers in Dog Day Afternoon where a graveyard is seen in the foreground.

    Movies that have characters visiting New York often have some great shots of the Towers – Crocodile Dundee sees them lit up at night, Home Alone 2 has them standing tall and imposing over their pint-sized hero.

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