Gotham polarized by 9/11 pic 'United'

NEW YORK — Audiences in Gotham were polarized by “United 93″ over the weekend. Moviegoers lingered uncertainly in front of theater box offices, boyfriends pleaded with girlfriends, and the city felt torn between embrace and skepticism.

“We had friends who just didn’t want to come,” said Eric Castillo of Brooklyn, in a common refrain, as he and his girlfriend waited for the start of a late showing at Regal Battery Park Stadium 16. “But we felt we couldn’t wait.”

All over the city, auds hashed out a more intense form of the debate echoing through the country and in the media — has Universal created an imperative viewing experience or an insult?

Some rushed out to see the film with an urgency that gave it the air of an event picture, not unlike, say, a new installment of “Star Wars” or “Harry Potter.”

At 10 a.m. Friday, about 25 people had gathered outside City Cinemas in the East Village to buy tickets for an 11 a.m. show, and they swapped stories about the World Trade Center and 9/11.

Later that day, a stream of people came from work and school to fill the house for an early evening showing at AMC Loews 19th Street just north of Union Square. “I’m just a New Yorker. It’s that simple,” said Kenneth Tse, before he and a friend went in to the theater.

Throughout the weekend, the movie seemed immune to variables of time and venue. Crowds stood and waited in the warm afternoon sun as they did late at night. Many couples even made it their choice for a Saturday night date movie.

With a picture window of the giant hole in the ground known as Ground Zero behind it, the normally sparse Battery Park Stadium 16 had a theater filled nearly to capacity for the 10:25 p.m. Saturday showing of “93,” the crowd a diverse mix of class and race.

Two rows behind Castillo sat Jacques Dillie, a native of France who recently moved to the World Trade Center area for work and felt an inherited connection to the place.

In the last row sat Robert and Tammi Goldfarb, a middle-aged couple who own a real-estate business two blocks from Ground Zero. They weren’t at their office on 9/11 but all their employees were. One took photos of people jumping from buildings, and they had to close their office for a month after the attack.

“It’s very bittersweet,” Robert Goldfarb said of seeing the movie at a theater in the shadow of where the towers once stood. “We don’t know how other people feel, but we wanted to see it right away, right here.”

But the packed house didn’t tell the story of all those who wouldn’t come — those who said it was too soon, those who said they would only watch the film on DVD in the privacy of their homes and those who simply shook their head, as though their rejection of the movie spoke for itself.

“Never. Not a chance,” said one woman outside City Cinemas on Saturday afternoon, and then she hurried into the theater to see a different film without explaining or identifying herself.

Some exhibs went to some lengths to differentiate the “United 93″ opening from that of an ordinary film. Both Regal and Clearview decided against showing trailers, and audiences were advised that the movie would start promptly at the posted time.

But for many it wasn’t enough, and, anecdotally at least, the reports of reluctant filmgoers suggested that U would have a difficult time convincing a core part of the potential audience. (Earlier, tracking had suggested a relatively large group that was “definitely not interested.”)

In front of the AMC Loews on Friday, two young women held a debate about which movie to see as they stood in front of posters for “Lucky Number Slevin” and “United 93,” with one saying, “It’s too depressing,” and the other volleying, “But it will be much better than the other movie.” Then they walked away entirely.

Others made their own compromises.

A woman outside the AMC Loews made one last-ditch effort on her cell phone. “So I guess you’re not interested then?” Then she bought one ticket for herself.

Outside the City Cinemas on Saturday afternoon, Doug Rennie had made a similar compromise. “I came by myself because it seemed easier than planning an outing,” he said.

Others overcame reluctant friends — and their own skepticism.

“There was a lot of hesitation,” said a woman outside the AMC who identified herself as Jeannette. “It was my darling friend here who really wanted to go.”

Universal has taken pains to give the movie the feel of a social cause, a move likely to defuse skepticism about its profit motive as well appeal to a certain segment of the population. The efforts did not go unnoticed.

“The big reason for me was they’re giving a percentage of the money to a memorial,” said Rodrigo DeCarle as he prepared to enter the AMC Loews.

But for many, both nobler purposes and controversies faded in the face of a more basic motivation. With so many arguments for and against the film’s release, in the end what tipped the scales for some was the same combination of factors that make people go see a film in any city on any day.

“We hadn’t really thought about seeing it,” said one twentysomething man as he and his friend prepared to see the film at City Cinemas on Saturday. “But the reviews have been very good,” and, his friend added, “There’s not much else out now that excited us.”

One government official spoke out in praise of “United 93.” In Sunday’s Washington Post opinion section, former New Jersey attorney general John Farmer, who is counsel to the 9/11 Commission, said: “The film is closer to the truth than any account the government put out before the 9/11 Commission investigation.”

Critical of the administration for trying to portray itself as having been more alert and responsive to the attacks than it actually was, Farmer concluded: “We can watch the movie and wonder at a government so lost in spin that it took Hollywood to set the record straight.”

(William Triplett in Washington contributed to this report.)

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more