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The Nation

In `United 93,' Hardest Role Isn't in Film

The private screening is itself a reminder of a central difficulty for 9/11 families: They can't escape reminders.

April 09, 2006|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

Ken Nacke approached the private screening of "United 93" at a Newark, N.J., movie theater Saturday with more than a little trepidation. It's not every day you sit down in a darkened room and watch your brother die.

"I wasn't sure I wanted to see it, because it brings you back to the day," said Nacke, a Baltimore County police officer. His brother, Louis Nacke, was aboard United Flight 93, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field Sept. 11, 2001. "Do you really want to relive those emotions again? But in hindsight, I'm glad I did."

Nacke, who described the movie as "powerful," traveled with seven family members, including his wife, to the special screening in advance of the film's public release later this month.

"I couldn't have gone through this stuff again alone," Nacke said by cellphone shortly after the film ended, his voice subdued against the backdrop of a noisy restaurant. "Even if you aren't a family member, you couldn't control the emotions that are in that film."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 12, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
"United 93": An article Sunday in Section A about how families of victims of United Flight 93 reacted to a new movie about them said Todd and Lisa Beamer had two daughters at the time of Todd Beamer's death. The couple had two sons at the time of the hijacked plane's crash, and Lisa Beamer was pregnant with a daughter.

Saturday's screening of "United 93" for families of those who died -- another is scheduled for today in Daly City, Calif. -- illustrates anew the unusual roles that the tragedy has bestowed upon the families.

Although their losses were intensely personal, their grief is inextricably tied with a stillunfolding national narrative that has led to two wars and dominated political discourse around the world.

"The loss is not just individual but also civil," said the Rev. Paul Britton, of Huntington Station, N.Y., whose sister, Marion Britton, was also aboard Flight 93 when it crashed as passengers tried to wrest control from the hijackers. "Culturally, we're still trying to figure out how we've been shaped by that disaster."

For the families, fresh reminders, and fresh retellings, arrive with each new turn -- from Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui's death-penalty trial underway in Virginia to the upcoming theatrical release of "United 93." The movie will premiere April 25 at New York's Tribeca Film Festival -- an annual event created in 2002 in part to help Lower Manhattan recover from the terrorist attacks.

The persistence of Sept. 11 in the national discourse has left many of the families struggling to balance private reflection and public dissection.

For Lisa Beamer, whose husband, Todd Beamer, issued the memorable directive "Let's roll" to start the assault on the hijackers, the desire for normality for her two daughters has won out. After initially stepping onto the national stage in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Beamer has since avoided public attention and rarely discusses Sept. 11 publicly.

But others, such as Hamilton Peterson, have devoted their unwanted celebrity to championing causes related to the terrorist attacks. Peterson has channeled grief over the loss of his father and stepmother, Donald and Jean Peterson, into the Families of Flight 93, working to erect a memorial at the crash site near Shanksville, Pa., and lobbying for fuller disclosure of tapes and transcripts from Sept. 11.

Peterson flew from his home in Bethesda, Md., Saturday morning to attend the Newark screening, which he and Nacke estimated drew 80 or more people.

After watching the film, Peterson joined Nacke in lauding Universal Studios and director Paul Greengrass for what they felt was a realistic re-creation of events whose true details can only be guessed at.

"Universal did justice to history, based on what I know" from listening to the still-unreleased cockpit recordings, Peterson said. "You could hear a pin drop at times. When it was over, there was not a dry eye in the house."

"United 93" is built around an imagined re-creation of the last 90 minutes of the lives of some of the people aboard Flight 93. Passengers used cellphones to call families, 911 operators and co-workers, though clear details of the last few moments of the flight died with those aboard the plane. Members of each crash victim's family had been interviewed by researchers for Greengrass, whose 2002 documentary-style drama, "Bloody Sunday," similarly reconstructed the 1972 march in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in which British paratroopers opened fire, killing 14 people.

Peterson said "United 93" memorializes the bravery of the passengers, who "in a matter of minutes thwarted what Al Qaeda took years to plan" and probably saved the U.S. Capitol from heavy damage or destruction -- a point he said was often lost in the attention focused on the World Trade Center tragedy.

Deena Burnett, whose husband, Tom Burnett, also died aboard Flight 93, lives in Little Rock, Ark., and missed Saturday's private screening but said she hoped to attend the premiere at Tribeca. She too tries to get the public to see the Flight 93 passengers as everyday people who responded heroically once they understood what was happening.

But over time she has found herself juggling occasionally conflicting responsibilities.

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