JEFFREY BROWN: Amid the horrors of September 11th in New York and at the Pentagon, the plight of Flight 93, the hijacked jet that crashed in a western Pennsylvania field, received the least attention, until now.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: United 93, runway 411, clear for takeoff.
PILOT: Roger that.
JEFFREY BROWN: The film "United 93," released nationwide today, is a real-time dramatization of horrors and heroism. Viewers watch as, one by one, people onboard and air traffic controllers on the ground realize they've become pawns in the terrorists' plan.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: The target for American 11 just disappeared.
AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLER: There he is, right there, over the Verrazano Bridge.
JEFFREY BROWN: Word of the attack spreads through the cabin of the San Francisco-bound flight.
FLIGHT 93 PASSENGER: Just go after me.
JEFFREY BROWN: And then, the passengers decide to take action. British director Paul Greengrass shot "United 93" with long stretches of unscripted scenes, featuring some amateur actors, including actual air controllers involved that day.
FILMMAKER: That was, like, the last straw. That was how it went down.
JEFFREY BROWN: Greengrass explained that, from the beginning, this flight was different.
PAUL GREENGRASS, Director, "United 93": The extraordinary thing about Flight 93 is that it was very late. By the time the Flight 93 took off, the other airplanes were reaching their targets.
JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the film, "United 93," arrives with its own questions of timing. The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath have been addressed in several books, in music...
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, Musician (singing): Come on up for the rising...
JEFFREY BROWN: ... and in two movies on cable TV. But "United 93" is the first major-studio feature to deal so directly with that day.
PAUL GREENGRASS: It's about whether it's the right time, and it's about whether the families of those people onboard the airplane want you to tell that story.
SEPTEMBER 11 VICTIM FAMILY MEMBER: Of course, it's too hard, but it's too hard for us every day.
JEFFREY BROWN: Monday night's premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in lower Manhattan attracted many of the victims' family members. Melanie Homer's husband, Leroy, was the co-pilot of Flight 93. Sandy Dahl's husband was the captain.
SEPTEMBER 11 VICTIM FAMILY MEMBER: I don't know how you could ever be ready for something like this.
JEFFREY BROWN: Jack Grandcolas lost his wife and unborn child.
JACK GRANDCOLAS, Flight 93 Victim's Husband: If people want to learn more about the events of that day, they should see the film. If they're not ready, then they shouldn't go. It's by no means entertainment.
JEFFREY BROWN: A former United Airlines manager said he wasn't ready to see the film.
ERIK AMEND, Former United Airlines Manager: It's only been a few years, and it almost seems like Hollywood is trying to profit from this.
JEFFREY BROWN: This weekend, Americans will use their wallets to judge whether now is the right time to revisit that day. Later this year, two more major motion pictures on 9/11 make it to the big screen, all before the fifth anniversary of the attacks.
And to look at some of these issues, we turn to David Edelstein, film critic for New York magazine, and Wheeler Winston Dixon, author of the book "Film and Television After 9/11." He's James Ryan Endowed professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Welcome to both of you.
Mr. Edelstein, the question that has been raised is: Are we ready for big Hollywood movies about 9/11? What do you think?
DAVID EDELSTEIN, Film Critic: Well, I think, like it or not, the events of 9/11 have permeated the culture. I mean, you see them in novels written after that point; you see them in television shows; you see them in other movies.
One could argue that "Syriana" and Stephen Spielberg's "Munich" were direct responses to 9/11 and attempted to frame the argument in a certain way. I think we're as ready as we'll ever be.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you're the one among the three of us who's had a chance to see this new movie, "United 93." How did it walk the line between honest drama and the feared sensationalism?
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Well, it is very -- it's actually extremely unsensationalized. I mean, in fact, it's almost more chilling when the director takes it, you know, to a slightly lower key than you expect.
And to me, there is nothing more haunting than the sight of air traffic controllers staring at a screen at a little white icon of a plane on a screen and not getting any answer, and that's all we see of it. But we know what's happening, even if the controllers don't.
So that's about as unsensational as you can get. Also, the murders of passengers, and flight attendants, and the pilots are very much done in the margins of the screens. It's almost merciful the way the director works very hard not to brutalize you with the violence.
On the other hand, you are brutalized by what you're watching, because this director, Paul Greengrass, began in documentaries. He made a sort of quasi-documentary called "Bloody Sunday," which was a sort of recreation of a very famous Northern Irish civil rights march that ended in a massacre in 1972. And so he does this movie almost as if it were a documentary about the events of 9/11.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, Professor Dixon, as Hollywood starts to tackle this subject, what concerns do you have about it?
WHEELER DIXON, Professor of Film Studies: Well, I mean, listening to David's description of the film, I'm kind of pleased that it doesn't take the sensationalistic angle, because, you know, in addition to the other work that you described Mr. Greengrass doing, he also did "The Bourne Supremacy," so that's where it gave me pause.
But I think the main concern, of course, is that it's going to become commercial, and sensationalistic, and go for the violence, and basically treat it as one would treat a traditional disaster movie. And that, I think, would be most unfortunate.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think that movies on this subject should be held to some higher standard?
WHEELER DIXON: Unquestionably. I mean, this is one of the defining moments of the 21st century. I mean, it's the 21st-century Pearl Harbor. And hopefully we don't have any more like these coming down the pike.
But I think that what's happening now is that these films -- and they're going to continue to roll out, because Oliver Stone is working on one now that's going to take place in the World Trade Center -- as these movies continue to roll out, I think that they must be held to a higher standard, because to trivialize these events would be to make light of one of the most serious political and social events of the 21st century and American society.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Professor Dixon, you have been documenting movies and TV since 9/11. What have you seen? How has it impacted that art form, even in films and TV, that is not explicitly about those events?
WHEELER DIXON: Well, I've seen, first, when after 9/11, right after it happened, there was more or less a summit meeting that was held in Hollywood. It was called by Jack Valenti, and also then all the major studio heads attended, basically saying we're going to cut back on violence, and we're going to, you know, go for more escapist fare.
And that only lasted for a couple of months. And there were films like "Collateral Damage" that were pulled, the Schwarzenegger vehicle, and there were a couple other films that were shelved.
But then, in the midst of all the escapism, there also came to be -- some extremely violent movies came back to the screen. And, in fact, I think that we're seeing two strands. We're seeing big budget spectacles, things like "War of the Worlds" and "King Kong," and we're seeing those films make a lot of money.
But we're also seeing smaller films, things like "Brokeback Mountain," and "Broken Flowers," and "Capote," and these films are sort of appealing to a more thoughtful audience that wants to think about these issues.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, David Edelstein, Professor Dixon used this word a couple of times, "escapism." That's the way most of us, I think, perhaps, think about going to the movies, not so much as a direct confrontation with tragedy or horror.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Well, that is a problem. That is a problem with telling the story. Because, let's face it, the mastermind of this, Osama bin Laden, is still at large. This is not a story that ends happily. Even though the passengers on board United 93 did manage to stop that plane, they all died.
I mean, the reason I have trouble seeing this as exploitation is that, if you want to make an exploitation movie, you make "King Kong." You don't tell the story of United 93.
Remember, Pearl Harbor was made into a movie a few years ago under the auspices of Jerry Bruckheimer. And it didn't end with the smoldering wreckage of those ships and all the dead bodies. It actually ended with Jimmy Dolittle taking a squadron and bombing the hell out of Tokyo.
You know, it's like, "Yeah, we're going to give it back to them." You know, Americans have a rather hard time with that sort of downbeat story, at least in the multiplex.
JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Dixon, you wanted to jump in?
WHEELER DIXON: Well, yes. I mean, basically I should make it clear that, although I'm now here in Lincoln, Nebraska, I am a native New Yorker. I was born in New Jersey, but I lived much of my time in New York and lived there until I came here.
I wanted to make it clear that, you know, I'm not saying that Greengrass' film is exploitational; I'm saying that's something we should guard against, that basically that there are a lot of people who would jump in to make a traditional action movie, you know.
And I think there's also another issue to jump in here, and that is that being careful about showing the violence in a way can be a trap, because I think that we have to acknowledge that those people died and that they died horribly, that they basically gave their lives in defense of something they believed in.
So I think that, you know, we have a twin problem here, and that is basically that you don't want to over-show the thing, but you don't want to play it down too much.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Well, on the other hand, I think we're somewhat inured to violence on the screen...
WHEELER DIXON: I'd agree.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: ... and we're also very prepared for it. And so what happens in "United 93" that's extraordinary is the violence isn't so upsetting as much as the final phone calls of passengers to their families.
WHEELER DIXON: Oh, I can imagine. I can imagine.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: The I love yous, the good-byes. That's when the theater that I saw it with, everyone, you know, broke out into sobs.
And, of course, I was at the premiere and sitting in front of the families, and you can only imagine what it must have been like for them to watch conversations that, in some cases, reenacted, but in some cases were with them.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right.
WHEELER DIXON: No, I understand it's totally faithful. I'm just saying that there's a danger the material can be exploited by less scrupulous filmmakers.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: I agree. I agree.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK, and we'll see what happens with this film and the others to come. Wheeler Winston Dixon and David Edelstein, thank you both very much.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Thank you.
WHEELER DIXON: Thank you.