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Glamour Meets Grief on `United 93' Red Carpet

Victims' relatives mingle with actors at the 9/11 film's `surreal' festival premiere in New York.

April 27, 2006|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It was an incongruous blending of Hollywood glitz and New York's lingering pain over the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a night when the festive opening of the Tribeca Film Festival paid homage to the grim tragedy that launched it five years ago.

As they walked into an ornate Midtown theater on a red carpet usually reserved for movie stars and other VIPs, more than 90 family members of those who died on United Flight 93 on Sept. 11 were bombarded with questions from the media. They were asked yet again about their loved ones, and whether America was ready to view "United 93," the first major film to focus directly on the terrorist attacks.

For New Yorkers, the Tuesday night premiere was also a chance to assess how well -- or appropriately -- a new batch of films connected to the city's lingering psychic wounds. Could a movie make concrete what happened, and how would it feel to cloak such an enormous tragedy in the trappings of a classic Hollywood premiere?

"The word 'surreal' comes to mind," said Alice Hoglan, mother of passenger Mark Bingham, who helped lead the passenger revolt aboard the flight. She was trying to express her feelings about the film, and what it meant on this night in New York, but the glare of cameras, the crush of the crowd and the shouts of publicity representatives on the red carpet overwhelmed her. "This is an unusual scene," Hoglan said. "But if that's what it takes to get people to see this movie, it's an important boost."

For Robert DeNiro, TV and film producer Jane Rosenthal and other backers, this year's festival marks a moment when artists -- not just journalists -- can respond to the attacks: "The media has shown it over and over, they have photographed this event more than any other, and it's important now to see creative people interpret this event, whether it's a novelist, a sculptor or a filmmaker," Rosenthal said. "Some people ask, 'Why now?' I say, 'Why not now?' "

But for some inside the Ziegfeld Theatre, the images of terror aboard the airplane and spreading chaos among air traffic controllers on the ground were too much. They walked out of the screening and did not return.

Most, though, were riveted, motionless in their seats. At the last moment, when the doomed plane hit the ground near Shanksville, Pa., the screen went silent. The only sounds in the theater were those of people sobbing.

Amid such charged emotions, the highly publicized premiere of "United 93" has provided a boost to the fifth annual Tribeca Film Festival, which was conceived in December 2001 by DeNiro, Rosenthal and her husband, financier Craig Hatkoff. They believed that a festival based in Lower Manhattan could revitalize an area economically devastated by the terrorist attacks.

The festival will have its share of blockbuster premieres this year, including "Poseidon" and "Mission: Impossible III." It's expected to generate more than $100 million in benefits for the community.

The event has grown enormously, becoming one of New York's most popular cultural events. It has expanded from a five-day festival to a two-week affair, and it has grown beyond its trendy downtown neighborhood into other parts of the city.

This year, Rosenthal said, the festival decided to honor its roots.

DeNiro said, "If '[United] 93' was not opening the festival, it would have seemed strange." He was speaking at a media event at the TriBeCa Community Center the day before the premiere. "You can't not be touched by the film. It's direct, it's simple. It's a kind of playback of what happened, and you know what's going to happen."

Others films at the festival about the terrorist attacks and the post-Sept. 11 world include "Saint of 9/11," about Father Mychal Judge, a New York Fire Department chaplain who died in the collapsing World Trade Center; "The Heart of Steel," about volunteer relief workers at ground zero; "The Blood of My Brother," about an Iraqi fatally shot by U.S. troops; "The War Tapes," featuring footage shot by National Guard members in Iraq; and "The Falling Man," based on a photograph of a World Trade Center employee plummeting to his death.

There will also be a festival-sponsored panel this week called "Visions of History and Truth: Artists in Action After 9/11."

As Flight 93 family members made their way down the red carpet and into the theater Tuesday evening, accompanied by the cast of mostly unknown actors, the media crush created bizarre moments.

Allison Vadhan was speaking about the death of her mother, passenger Kristin White Gould, when a publicity representative walked by with two actors in tow, shouting, "This guy plays the pilot, and she plays a passenger."

Across the street, a handful of protesters shouted repeatedly: "The truth is not in Hollywood! A movie is not reality!"

Some family members, who had seen the film at least once before, described it in calm tones. But others, like Vadhan, called it "a devastating thing to see."

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