Tribeca opener 'United 93' and other 9/11 pics bring an American tragedy back home

On April 12, jurors in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui listened raptly to United Flight 93’s cockpit tape, which recorded the roughly 31 minutes between the moment the terrorists seized control of the plane to the time passengers made a doomed effort to regain control of their fate.

The story was played out above the fold on front pages across the country, from the Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times — often in the same newspapers that recently questioned whether moviegoers are willing to revisit the tragic events of five years ago. But in a country where the specter of 9/11 continues to influence everything from homeland security to immigration to gasoline prices, why wouldn’t films participate in the debate?

“We need these films to be made,” says director Paul Greengrass. “We have to look at this event, to try to make sense of it. Movies have to play a role in that.”

Tonight, Greengrass’ “United 93,” which opens the fifth annual Tribeca Film Festival, will ask New Yorkers — who suffered the brunt of the attacks — to return to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when a small group of hijackers brought a stunned and horrified America temporarily to its knees. For Greengrass, it’s fitting that the film, a Universal release told in real time, premieres at Tribeca, itself created as a sort of rehabilitative response to 9/11.

“It’s going to be a sobering, humbling evening,” Greengrass predicts.

But the strong medicine will be leavened by popcorn. In a slightly jarring feat of programming, “United 93″ will appear on the same fest menu as more escapist disaster offerings, such as Warner’s “Poseidon,” which will hold its world premiere at the event on May 6, as well as the U.S. debut on May 3 of Paramount’s “Mission: Impossible III,” the very concept of which is disaster prevention.

But the blockbusters seem unlikely to eclipse “United 93″ or the numerous other 9/11-related films showing at Tribeca this year (see related story on page A20), which are merely harbingers of things to come.

In addition to “United 93,” there is Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” set to open in August, chronicling the harrowing odyssey of two Port Authority officers trapped under the rubble at Ground Zero; Danny Leiner’s “The Great New Wonderful,” a June release starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Edie Falco that tells five stories set in New York one year after the attacks; Jeff Renfroe’s “Civic Duty,” a Tribeca offering that follows a paranoid accountant played by Peter Krause who becomes obsessed with an Islamic neighbor; and Chris Gorak’s “Right at Your Door,” picked up by Lionsgate at Sundance, about the explosion of dirty bombs in Los Angeles.

For all their controversy, both “United 93″ and “World Trade Center” occupy familiar Hollywood terrain. Against the backdrop of terror and tragedy, the movies tell stories of individuals facing dire situations and tapping unknown strength and courage to survive or fight back.

Ironically, the films provide an almost affirming message to a country caught up in unsettling times.

“They’re about bravery, courage and the triumph of the human spirit … a certain kind of American strength, a strength that is in all of us,” says Neal Gabler, an author whose books include “Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” America is experiencing a kind of “low moment,” Gabler adds, with widespread anxiety over the country’s direction, terrorism and Iraq.

“This country desperately needs heroism … Hollywood is hoping that at a time when people feel disillusioned, unhappy and anxious, these films will be the antidote,” he says. “We’re not ready yet for the kind of dramatic exploration of 9/11 that looks at the loss of life, that asks ‘Why?’ ”

Greengrass, who also made “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Bloody Sunday,” a probing documentary-style recreation of the 1972 killings of unarmed demonstrators by British troops in Northern Ireland, sees “United 93″ — despite the passengers’ “immense courage” — as unrelentingly dark.

“The film is not about an easy choice,” he says.

Greengrass sees the world reflected in the final, desperate struggle for the cockpit, and wants audiences to consider what should be done “to give us an outcome that isn’t a crashed plane.”

And yet neither Greengrass nor Stone address the larger picture of Sept. 11, from terrorists’ motives to U.S. intelligence failures. In this regard, “Bloody Sunday” makes an interesting comparison to “United 93.” The earlier film not only re-created the killings, but also closely examined the actions that led to them.

Stone, too, has been quick to distance “World Trade Center” from politics. The film’s screenwriter, Andrea Berloff, described the film’s focus recently to the L.A. Times as one of “heroism and friendship and bravery,” and asserted that “WTC” is “a small story and is not the 9/11 story.”

Angelo Guglielmo, director of Tribeca entry “The Heart of Steel,” a documentary about “renegade” volunteers during New York’s 9/11 relief effort, says general audiences are not ready to see “how everything single-handedly collapsed that day.”

“It’s too soon to tell that story … the wounds are too raw,” says Guglielmo.

In the arts, darker examinations of 9/11 often have fallen mainly to television and to musicians, playwrights and novelists, though some independent filmmakers are venturing into post-Sept. 11 psychological terrain.

In “The Great New Wonderful,” the characters live in a kind of shock and limbo, detached from reality and afflicted with rage. Leiner stresses that the work, which grew out of a series of one-act plays and showed at last year’s Tribeca, is not a “9/11 film.”

“My movie is about loss, grief and healing, which I think people want to explore,” he says. His references to Sept. 11 are subtle, like the bells ringing on the attacks’ one-year anniversary.

In its review of the recently released “Sorry Haters,” starring Robin Wright Penn as an unbalanced woman who torments a Middle Eastern cabdriver, the New York Times accused director Jeff Stanzler of “shamelessly drawing on post-Sept. 11 anxieties.”

Stanzler feels the exploitation charge mischaracterizes his film, and he questions whether artists must secure approval for their films from victims’ families, as Greengrass has done.

“Only now is it becoming acceptable to talk about (9/11), although there seem to be restraints about how,” Stanzler says. “I think it’s a shame on American cinema now that we try so hard not to offend, not to remind people of the here and now.”

To prove Stanzler’s point, the recent made-for-TV “Flight 93″ scored the biggest audience in A&E’s 22-year history, drawing almost 6 million viewers when it was televised in January. And during the previous fall, the Discovery Channel drew an impressive 7 million viewers to “The Flight That Fought Back,” a mix of re-enactments and interviews.

Television continues to blaze a trail on 9/11 themes, with Showtime having just greenlit a second season of “Sleeper Cell,” which centers on an L.A.-based Islamic terrorist cell, and ABC is going forward with a miniseries on the 9/11 Commission Report.

Other features now in development include “102 Minutes,” based on the book by two New York Times reporters chronicling the time between the crash of the first plane and the collapse of the second tower; “Reign O’er Me,” with Adam Sandler playing a grief-stricken man who lost his family in the attacks; and a film based on Richard Clarke’s charged memoir, “Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror,” with Paul Haggis floated as the possible director.

But for the moment, Hollywood is sticking to a familiar script, with 9/11 films that present Americans as victims and heroes, and serve as tributes and warnings.

It is still uncertain whether American audiences want to see stories about Flight 93 and the Twin Towers on the big screen. Whatever the answer, these films, though daring in their own right, somehow suggest a more innocent time.

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