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Is America ready for movies about 9/11?

Despite the pulling of a `United 93' trailer, the victims' families seem prepared for the films.

April 12, 2006|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

A few weeks ago in a Manhattan movie house, the trailer for the upcoming "United 93" movie flashed footage of a hijacked airliner slamming into the World Trade Center. The scene so upset some patrons that the theater manager yanked the teaser.

But Saturday, Elsa Strong watched the whole movie as it tracked the last 90 minutes of the lives of those aboard -- including her sister -- who died when United Flight 93 crashed on Sept. 11, 2001, as they apparently struggled with Al Qaeda hijackers.

Strong was shaken afterward but had no complaints about the film's timing or appropriateness -- a reaction that raises compelling questions about the nature of emotional pain, the amount of time it takes for raw nerves to mend and the line between disaster and entertainment in this media-centric society.

As the nation nears the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, a growing debate is emerging in Internet chat rooms and elsewhere over Hollywood's decision to tackle elements of that day in "United 93," set for release April 28, and Oliver Stone's planned August release of "World Trade Center," about two police officers from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who were trapped in the twin towers' rubble.

The key points of contention: whether the films are coming too soon for a nation still trying to sort out its emotions and whether Hollywood is guilty of callousness in using victims' stories for studio gain. Yet both movies were produced with the help and support of those most closely affected, suggesting that the families of those who died that day could be farther along the healing path than some of the rest of the nation.

"I don't know that there's any prescribed amount of time -- I don't really know who can deem it appropriate," said Strong, of Amherst, N.H. "But the more people who become aware of what happened and the extent of the courage that [Flight 93 passengers and crew] had to use to do what they did, I guess, the better."

"United 93" director Paul Greengrass, who has made films and documentaries about social and political issues, including "Bloody Sunday," about the violence surrounding a 1972 civil rights march in Northern Ireland, said the timing is based on instinct -- and conversations with those directly affected.

"The only people who can truly judge the issue is the families themselves," Greengrass said Tuesday. "You have to go to them and ask for their permission. And ask properly, and systematically, which is what we did. And these families [of the "United 93" victims] were unanimous in agreeing to participate.

"That's not to say that everybody will agree with them. These are very distressing events. But just as there are other films made to entertain, I believe there's room for films to challenge us. It's difficult to grapple with all this, but we have to try, don't we?"

There are some indications the country could well be ready -- an A&E program titled "Flight 93" in January was the cable network's all-time top-rated show, with 5.9 million viewers.

American culture -- and Hollywood -- have grappled with such convulsions before, from the sudden shock of the attack on Pearl Harbor to the crescendoing emotions of the Vietnam War. While it's inviting to look at 9/11 within the context of those national crises, the terrorist attacks were different, committed not by a foreign state but by a loose organization and striking at the symbolic heart of the nation.

The initial shock of watching the attacks unfold on TV was followed by two wars and an increasingly rancorous debate that has distracted much of the nation from the natural cycles of grieving and healing, while the families have focused on their losses.

"They've done their grieving, and now they're doing their work," said Howard A. Rodman, chairman of USC's Writing for Screen & Television division of the School of Cinema-Television. "Their closeness to the situation may have enabled them to find some peace and distance from it a little better."

While some might think Hollywood is moving too quickly, history suggests otherwise. Within five months of the Pearl Harbor attack, Republic Pictures had cranked out "Remember Pearl Harbor," the first in a series of Hollywood films that sought to depict the war and rally the American spirit.

"The nation was totally mobilized for war," said Robert Sklar, a cinema studies professor at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, who watched from the roof of his apartment building as the twin towers fell. "There was an Office of War Information that had some direct control over Hollywood, and there was the Army Signal Corps producing documentaries. People like Frank Capra and John Ford and John Huston went into the military and made films."

Some films were overt propaganda; others were more subtle.

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