Grounded in reality

Has Hollywood moved too fast with this film?


Among the questions that rose from the anguish and rubble of Sept. 11 was this: How long would it take Hollywood to do the movie?

The answer, for the record, is four years, seven months and 17 days.

With today's release of United 93 - a partly fact-based, partly speculative, disturbingly vivid account of what happened aboard the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pa., foiling the hijackers' suspected plan to slam it into the U.S. Capitol - there will assuredly be those who say it's too soon.

Not even five years, to them, is a respectable enough period to wait before making a movie about Sept. 11, an event that killed so many and scarred the American psyche so deeply.

Others will say that, depending on the movie's tastefulness, purpose and historical integrity, there's no such thing as too soon - that just as reporters report, and documentary makers document, Hollywood's role is to interpret, reflect and provoke critical thought.

How soon is too soon? The answer depends on the individual - for America is not one big psyche but hundreds of millions of them. Just as some traveled to look at the devastation at Ground Zero, there will be those who rush to see the movie. Just as some made conscious efforts to shut out the round-the-clock news coverage, there will be those who make a point to avoid the film.

What is clear, though, is that after almost five years, Sept. 11 has become fair game for the entertainment industry.

Besides United 93, an August release is planned for World Trade Center, Oliver Stone's film about two Port Authority police officers who survived being trapped in the twin towers; ABC is preparing a miniseries based on the 9/11 Commission report; and terrorism czar Richard Clarke's memoir, Against All Enemies, has been turned into a screenplay.

The Hollywood projects come on the heels of a handful of documentaries in the past nine months - including popular documentaries on A&E and Discovery Channel and two British productions, last year's Hamburg Cell and this year's The Falling Man, a documentary based on the photograph of an unidentified man plummeting from the World Trade Center.

"Something is happening," said Maryland Film Festival founder Jed Dietz, who introduced a screening of United 93 Wednesday night at the Charles Theatre. "Somebody, at least, is feeling it's time to talk about it, to start digesting and revisiting it again."

Until 9/11, the amount of time between disaster and docudrama, between mayhem and movie screen, had been steadily dwindling. Whether it was a TV movie, major motion picture or documentary, the thinking of producers was that, given America's fleeting attention span, the quicker a production could be brought to the screen the better.

After 9/11, the idea of a grace period quietly returned - if not across the board, at least when it came to depictions of events of the day itself.

"In the past, it would be 10 years before you would see a film - there was a general sense of allowing a period for respect and reflection," said Christopher Sharett, a professor of communications and film studies at Seton Hall University. "Today, the basic rule in the industry is to strike while the iron is hot. There is a smaller and smaller window between the time of an event and its representation in the cinema.

"Hollywood is not reverential toward much of anything, and the name of the game is to capture the very fleeting public attention span - even regarding something as traumatic as 9/11."

That it took more than four years to reach the big screen is a testament to the extraordinary heights of grief and sorrow the events induced.

While there is no organized opposition to the new movie, it has become a hot topic of discussion on the Internet, and trailers shown at a Manhattan movie theater so upset some customers that the theater stopped showing them - an indication that at least some find the whole idea insensitive.

It wouldn't be the first time Hollywood faced that criticism in recent years.

The Holocaust, long viewed as untouchable to filmmakers, didn't become a movie theme until almost 1960, and while it would be used often after that, Sharett said, "there are some sectors of the Jewish community that still see it as a kind of sacrilege to even attempt to represent the Holocaust in a medium like TV or cinema."

The best known footage of the 1963 Kennedy assassination - the so-called Zapruder film - was kept under wraps until 1970, though only partly for reasons of taste, and the first movie that proferred a conspiracy theory wasn't until 1973.

Remember Pearl Harbor was released a mere five months after the 1941 attack, but it, and most of the films that followed, were propaganda pieces, made to get the country behind the war effort. It wasn't until the 1950s that films began delving into that war's complexities.

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