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Critic climbs aboard `93'

Some question the use of Rolling Stone's Peter Travers in the film's Oscar campaign.

January 12, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

In what appears to be a first in Oscar campaigning, Universal Studios has enlisted real-life film critics to appear in radio ads for its Oscar hopeful, "United 93" -- Paul Greengrass' film about the 9/11 flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. Hence, instead of the ubiquitous voice of Mr. Moviefone invoking the film's merits or snippets of dialogue over a pop song (tacky, given the film's subject matter), the studio has opted for Rolling Stone's Peter Travers solemnly declaring "United 93" to be "a monumental achievement."

Travers adds, "There's not an ounce of Hollywood bull in this movie's 111 minutes."

Travers wasn't paid for his efforts and, in fact, he's merely reading words he wrote in the magazine. According to Universal's co-president of marketing, Eddie Egan, a number of film critics who also praised the movie were asked to participate. Some declined. Others besides Travers were recorded, but Egan refuses to say if their words will be used.

In the world of criticism, Travers' actions have raised questions about the blurring between review and advocacy. Critics routinely complain if their words get misconstrued in studio ads and are generally nervous about getting drawn into any conglomerate's marketing plan. "They didn't ask me, but I wouldn't have done it," said Peter Rainer, president of the National Society of Film Critics and a critic for the Christian Science Monitor. There is a difference, he said, between passively allowing one's words to be used (which studios are legally permitted to do anyway) and "actually stepping into a studio and recording the same comment for the publicity campaign."

"There is an undeniable quid pro quo going on in all these kinds of blubbery. The critic [who does this] is helping himself and his bosses by branding his outlet or publication as part of the ad."

In an e-mail, Travers said that although he too has concerns about studio manipulation, he "jumped into the mosh pit because of the film in question. We're not talking 'Big Momma's House 2.' This is 'United 93,' a film I rank among the best of 2006.... 'United 93' has faced resistance from audiences who find the subject of what transpired on September 11th, 2001 too painful and way too soon for a movie to tackle. I disagree. Who knows how effective a radio spot is at encouraging viewers to let down their guards and let this movie in. Given how compassionately and artfully director Paul Greengrass has handled the complexities of 'United 93,' I thought it was worth a try."

Universal's recent embrace of film critics is ironic, given that over the summer many of the studios waged campaigns to stress the irrelevancy of such arbiters of taste who panned such popular fare as "The Da Vinci Code." But during Oscar season, all the studios love a critic, as one can see from reading newspaper ads comprising zillions of stars and hyperbolic praise.

And Universal has had to be extra aggressive to bring attention to the film that, as many Universal insiders have pointed out, is the best-reviewed film of the year according to a roundup of 250 film critics' Top 10 lists yet may be too daunting for some -- Academy Awards voters among them -- to see.

"It was always the challenge of the material from its inception," said Universal's Egan.

When the movie was first presented to the Universal greenlight committee -- composed of reps from marketing, production, distribution and home video -- there was a kind of hesitation. But after they were presented with writer-director Greengrass' treatment, which described his intention to use nonfamous actors in a cinema verite style, "we put our hands up and the film got made," Egan said.

"Sometimes subjects -- specifically like the story of what happened on Flight 93, or more generally films about tolerance -- are uncomfortable for people, but it falls to art to illuminate the present."

When the film debuted in April as the first feature film to examine 9/11, some pundits went into overdrive debating whether Greengrass' film could evoke the tragedy without exploiting it. Others asked whether enough time had passed to allow such a film even to exist.

As Michael Agger of Slate fumed, "I see this trailer as an unwelcome and somewhat grotesque reminder of the great Onion headline published after 9/11: 'American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie.' " Other journalists focused on an incident that occurred in a New York theater when the trailer ran and one patron screamed, "Too soon!"

"United 93" is based on real-life interviews with family members after the tragedy as well as phone and FCC transcripts from that fateful day. Far from being a tear-jerker, the movie re-creates what could have happened on the flight, which crashed and killed all aboard after 40 ordinary Americans took on the hijackers rather than sit helplessly and let the plane become another lethal firebomb dropping on more helpless civilians.

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