A wrenching reminder of 9/11 was surrounded with red-carpet hoopla at the world preem of “United 93,” which kicked off the fifth edition of the Tribeca film fest Tuesday at Gotham’s Ziegfeld theater.
After the film’s devastating final scene, the screen abruptly went dark and a cacophony of loud, uncontrollable sobs could be heard coming from the back of the theater, where many of the nearly 100 family members of 9/11 victims were seated.
Some were seeing the film for the first time. As more than 1,100 viewers filed out, a funereal silence filled the theater.
And as the sobbing continued after the screening, there were sounds of other people comforting the family members and taking them outside.
As people were filing out, there was a strange encounter as some family members came face to face with an actor who played a hijacker. One quietly told the thesp, “You were very brave.”
A low-key mood continued at the post-screening reception at the Four Seasons where the families mingled with other attendees like N.Y. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and NBC News’ Brian Williams.
The film, the first major studio pic to revisit the 2001 tragedy, has an urgent documentary style and the reaction of Tuesday’s crowd suggests that public reaction to the pic, which bows Friday, will be even more intense than many had even anticipated.
Universal will donate 10% of opening weekend to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa.
Before the pic, Gordon Felt, a family member who is leading the cause for the memorial, stood to thank Universal execs and helmer Paul Greengrass, a move that fit with larger U campaign to generate goodwill and word of mouth.
Before the film, Greengrass and the fest’s Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal also made pitches for project’s importance.
A stream of family members also walked the red carpet, ahead of the stars arriving for the fest’s opening night. Paparazzi, print journos and TV reporters jockeyed to question them on their assessment of the film.
But even as the family members were giving interviews, the scene reverted to a more typical red carpet, with photographers yelling for closeups from Tom Selleck, Carol Kane and other celebs gathered for the preem.
Though trailers for the film were yanked a few weeks ago after some Gotham filmgoers protested that it was too soon to revisit the 9/11 events, some of the victims’ family members expressed satisfaction with the pic and U’s subtle handling of the film’s promotion.
“I look at the film as a memorial of my brother,” said Bonnie Levar, whose brother Donald Greene was on the flight. Andrew Bernstein, whose uncle died on flight 93, said, “Some people say, ‘How can you do this? It’s too soon.’ And we say ‘It’s not soon enough.’ ” Some offered a more qualified endorsement.
“I would have preferred everything about this be a documentary,” said Sarah Wainio, whose sister Elizabeth was a passenger on the flight. “But for a Hollywood feature I thought they did a good job.”
Others noted that they continued to doubt government accounts of the attack.
Across the street from the Ziegfeld, a small group of protesters gathered, calling for an “end to the media blackout,” but the focus was mostly on the red carpet.
Preem also featured 9/11 figures like Bob Kerrey, as well as MPAA chief Dan Glickman, who, when asked about U’s handling of the marketing, called it “tasteful” and said, “If Hollywood can’t make a movie about real events, what can it make a movie of?” He said that “the proof is in the pudding, because families seem to be satisfied.”
Despite the approval of family members, most agreed on one thing. “I think we all agree it would be better if we didn’t have to be here at all.”