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Tragedy on the big screen: 'United 93' testing America's readiness to relive Sept. 11, 2001
LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood is about to test your emotional fortitude with a simple, searing question: Are you ready to relive Sept. 11?
"United 93," the first big-screen dramatization about the terrorist attacks, is a painfully authentic and detailed account of the hijacked plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers fought to retake the jet from hijackers.
The film is horrific, distressful, unbearable. It's the plane wreck you know is coming, yet in true Hollywood fashion, you hope for a different outcome even as you agonize over the climactic frenzy on board.
Like so many stories of Sept. 11, the film also offers rays of hope and resilience amid the terrible consequences.
As the five-year anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, "United 93" and Oliver Stone's upcoming "World Trade Center" will help gauge whether audiences have the stomach for big-screen treatments of the tragedy.
"United 93" director Paul Greengrass acknowledges that some people may not be ready -- may never be ready -- for films about Sept. 11. But the British filmmaker said such movies may help sort out conflicting responses and reactions amid the chain of events Sept. 11 set in motion.
"What are we going to do about the difficulties and dangers we face, about fundamentalist Islam, the threat from jihadists? There is no consensus," Greengrass said. "We disagree passionately in your society and mine about what we should be doing, what we shouldn't be doing, what are the consequences of our actions.
"But it seems to me we all agree that what has happened in the world goes back to the morning of Sept. 11, and if we're going to find some consensus, maybe we need to go back to that place, tell that story again, see if we can't find some wisdom in it and see if that energizes our debate."
Families of the 40 passengers and crew members killed on United Flight 93 cooperated in the production, offering Greengrass detailed background about their loved ones, down to the clothes they wore and what sort of candy they might have snacked on aboard the plane.
"The story was going to be told. I just wanted to make sure it was told with some dignity," said Gordon Felt, whose brother Edward was killed in the United 93 crash. "It turned out as close to a factual basis as humanly possible. Obviously, we'll never know exactly what took place on that plane, but they did a wonderful job of piecing things together."
Victims' families were among the first to see "United 93" at screenings set up for them by distributor Universal, which plans to donate 10 percent of the first weekend's box-office grosses to the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pa., where the plane crashed.
David and Peggy Beamer, whose son Todd Beamer was killed on United 93, said the film is a suitable testament to the victims.
"Our personal reaction was one of relief, because they got it right," David Beamer said. "When it comes to Sept. 11 and United Flight 93, we don't need another movie. This one got it."
"It's hard even to talk about it now and see it now, but it's something that really needed to be done," Peggy Beamer said. "It needs to be seen."
General audiences have strongly mixed feelings about reliving Sept. 11 at the movies.
"That's not going to be a movie that's to be enjoyed. It's a movie that's going to bring you down," said Sheldon Sorber, 50, of Pittsburgh. "Why rehash it?"
Tamara Tate, 23, of Pittsburgh said she plans to see "United 93," hoping to come away with insights on the passengers' actions.
"Come on, it's reality. It happened," Tate said. "You see the same stuff on the news, so why not make a movie about it?"
Universal Pictures shot the film for a modest $15 million, so it does not have to draw a huge audience to make its money back.
Sept. 11 has been examined endlessly in television, books, magazines, radio and music. It's fitting that film bring up the rear in taking on the subject, said Adam Fogelson, the studio's president of marketing.
"In many ways, it's a more permanent medium than many other mediums. It is in many ways larger than life because of the size of the screen. It's a communal experience, something you're not doing in the privacy of your home. So it's appropriate that feature film be the last into it," Fogelson said.
Whether movies came one year or 10 years after Sept. 11, audiences would have intense reactions and mixed feelings about seeing them, said Michael Shamberg, a producer of "World Trade Center," about two policeman trapped in the rubble of the twin towers.
"Usually, you have to tell people what a movie's about to make them care about it, but everyone has a visceral connection to Sept. 11 coming in," Shamberg said.
While "World Trade Center" stars Nicolas Cage and features such familiar faces as Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, "United 93" uses a no-name cast. Greengrass applies a docudrama style similar to his 2002 film "Bloody Sunday," a painstaking chronicle of a 1972 massacre of unarmed protesters by British soldiers in Northern Ireland.
Along with professional actors, the "United 93" cast includes air-traffic controllers, pilots, flight attendants and others in the aviation industry.
"We expect our movie stars to do extraordinary things, because they're iconic," Greengrass said. "But to capture the measure of achievement of those people on that airplane, it was essential to believe they were as ordinary as you or I."
"United 93," re-creates the routine flight preparations as passengers and the four terrorists go through security at Newark airport and settle in for the flight to San Francisco. Those quiet scenes are intercut with the growing chaos on the ground as air-traffic controllers realize they are dealing with multiple hijackings and the other three commandeered jets hit the trade center and the Pentagon.
After the hijackers take control of United 93, passengers learn of the other attacks through clandestine phone calls to people on the ground. They quickly band together to overpower two hijackers in the cabin and storm the cockpit in a gut-wrenching charge.
Shot in a modified jetliner, the in-flight action for "United 93" was so fierce and realistic that some actors who were never bothered by flying before now say they hate getting on a plane.
"The hardest part is landing. It's the one thing these people didn't get to do," said David Alan Basche, who plays Todd Beamer. "I'm saddened by the fact that 40 people on that plane never got to do that and never got to go home to their loved ones."