Archive for Thursday, May 4, 2006

Now Showing: Not too soon for United 93

May 4, 2006

One of the reasons I'm a movie buff is that occasionally the business of movies reaches beyond the scope of "Entertainment Weekly" or the "Preview" section of the weekend newspaper to become an actual, full-fledged news item. Forget baseball, I'd argue that going to movies is the national pastime, especially when topics like box office slumps, violence outside theaters or new technologies become front-page news or when the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred with movies like "The Passion of the Christ" and "The DaVinci Code."

The latest controversy is whether or not it's too soon to make movies about 9-11. I have to answer with an emphatic "No." As far as I'm concerned, that terrifying day almost five years ago became fair game on 9-12. Didn't we see it all anyway, over and over again, on CNN or Fox News?

In fact, I insist that movies about 9-11 need to be made, especially since with each passing day, the details become a little fuzzier and it starts feeling like it never really happened -- like maybe we all just had a very bad dream. And when finding the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks doesn't seem to be a priority of our government, and we begin joking about the fact that Osama Bin Laden remains at large, I champion the release of a film that might give us a collective wakeup call.

Now, whether or not it's too soon to watch movies about 9-11 is another story. I'd never want to force someone for whom the events remain fresh and for those who were personally affected by the tragedy. Like anything else, it's a personal choice. If you can't handle a movie about 9-11, don't go see it. But also, certainly don't tell someone else they can't make it or that someone else can't go see it.

For me, it all comes down to whether or not it's a good movie. In this case, I mean, is it in good taste and is it effective for the medium? Is it sensational or is it respectful? Why is it being made -- to turn a profit or to share a message with those that want to see it?

Obviously, I'm talking about "United 93," which opened last weekend. Although the preachy trailers insisting that it was a movie that the families wanted to be made came off as too much of a hard sell for me, I was eager to see it.

There's no doubt that "United 93" is an effective movie. As it opens with scenes of terrorists getting dressed, air traffic controllers reporting to work and passengers boarding the airplane, I immediately felt a sense of dread since I knew what was eventually going to happen. As news begins to spread that there has been an inexplicable explosion at the World Trade Center, I was taken back to that awful day, recalling what I was doing, how I first heard about it and how I felt.

Unreeling like a documentary without narration, "United 93" does a pretty good job of putting the timeline of the day's events in perspective. Its early scenes focus on the other flights and the events in New York City and Washington, D.C., as seen from various air traffic control centers and from the military. The action then shifts primarily to United Flight 93 as terrorists hijack the plane and a brave group of passengers decide to take matters into their own hands, perhaps preventing greater disaster.

But you can't really say "United 93" is "entertaining." It's one of those movies that you can respect for being good, but you're hesitant to say you really liked it. I mean, it's not much fun reliving those events. And the movie does a fantastic job of making you feel like you're really there.

There's no "Airport '77" back stories for the passengers; what you learn about them is what you hear as they make frantic and final phone calls to their loved ones on the ground. There are many shots of individuals just sitting, both before boarding and during the flight. You don't know much about them, but they look like you and me. And that leads me to what I got out of the movie.

It could easily have been you or me on a plane on Sept. 11, 2001. I can't help but wonder if I would have had it inside me to act as the passengers on United 93 did. Would I have found the courage and selflessness? Would you? Is my life in order on any give day so that I would be prepared to say goodbye for a final time? Is yours?

As ironic as the fact the air traffic controllers first learned about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center from CNN, is the thought that Hollywood must love when its movies cross over into front page headlines. No news is bad news. People shouting "It's too soon" at movie screens during "United 93" trailers must make producers' eyes light up with dollar signs. It wasn't No. 1 at the box office, but on less than half the screens as the No. 1 movie, it did almost 30 percent more business per screen.

I don't even want to get into what it means that "RV" was the weekend's top-grossing movie. But I do want to point out that there's no doubt that it's not too soon for "United 93." And next fall's "World Trade Center?" If it's as sensitive and thoughtful as this movie, then bring it on. We've got to be careful, though. When the focus of movies about 9-11 shifts to pure entertainment, we've crossed a line that should not to be crossed.

Jeff Owens is co-owner of Couch Potato Video in De Soto and an avowed movie buff.

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