It's not too soon for films on 9/11

April 21, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- A lot of people have been fretting nationwide in recent weeks as to whether it is "too soon" for United 93, the first big theatrical movie to deal with the events of 9/11.

My response? Simply this: If not now, when?

Nearly five years have passed since that fateful day when passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco rose up against al-Qaida hijackers and died in a remote part of Pennsylvania as heroes, the passengers who fought back.

It took less than five years after the fall of Saigon in 1975 to see high-quality, truly introspective Vietnam movies such as The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). We supposedly do things faster these days.

On the small screen, A&E attracted 5.9 million viewers, the largest audience in the cable TV network's history, with its docudrama Flight 93 in January. The big-screen United 93 is directed by Paul Greengrass, acclaimed British director of The Bourne Supremacy and the docudrama Bloody Sunday, about Northern Ireland in 1972.

Yet United 93 did not have to wait for its opening in theaters around the country on April 28 (three days after its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival near the World Trade Center site) to cause a stir. Its previews alone have brought hoots at the screen, complaints to theater owners and a national debate on the airwaves.

Previews of the film startled audiences who were still munching on their popcorn as they awaited Spike Lee's action thriller Inside Man. Some viewers are reported to have shed tears and shouted "Too soon!" A multiplex in Manhattan pulled the trailer after patrons complained.

I feel their pain. I, too, felt like putting down my popcorn. Here I had prepared myself for one movie experience, then blamo! I got hit with another.

Of course, I felt the same uneasy feeling at the beginning of Hotel Rwanda. It's an excellent movie, but re-creations of genocide are hardly light entertainment.

Nevertheless, I suspect the United 93 preview is upsetting to audiences mostly because it comes for many viewers without warning.

There's no blood in the United 93 previews. It shocks us initially with its serenity, the humdrum cheeriness of a normal airport morning under beautiful skies. I have not been able to greet a nice, sunny morning since 9/11 without thinking, "Ah, is this another good day for a terrorist attack?"

That's my inner Todd Beamer talking to me. He was the United 93 passenger whose famous "Let's roll" led fellow passengers to foil the hijackers who were headed toward the Capitol, near where I happened to be working that morning.

Much later we would learn about the courage with which ordinary people such as Mr. Beamer rose up against al-Qaida, armed, because of an unexpected delay in their takeoff, with knowledge that the passengers of earlier downed planes did not have about their hijackers' true mission.

So, no, I was not delighted to be reminded of all that after I settled down to turn off my brain and watch Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster chase bad guys, only to be jerked alert by something that was genuinely thought-provoking - and heart-wrenching. But the preview also started me thinking about whether we should be trying so hard to push 9/11 out of our minds. Shouldn't we be paying more attention, not less, to the people in this world who want to kill us?

We don't need to be paralyzed by that continuing danger. We only need to stay alert. Passengers on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami showed why just a few weeks after 9/11 when they subdued Richard Reid before he could finish lighting his shoe bomb.

It is the nature of terrorism to kill lots of civilians and frighten the rest into submission. The big lesson of the United 93 uprising, as the daughter of one passenger said recently in support of the movie, is in "never letting fear take over and doing everything you possibly can - until you can't."

Is it "too soon" for a movie to explore that lesson?

If not now, when?

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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