If movie trailers are supposed to cause a reaction, the preview for "United 93" more than succeeds. Featuring no voice-over and no famous actors, it begins with images of a beautiful morning and passengers boarding an airplane. It takes you a minute to realize what the movie's even about. That's when a plane hits the World Trade Center. The effect is visceral. When the trailer played before "Inside Man" last week at the famed Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, audience members began calling out, "Too soon!" In New York City, where 9/11 remains an open wound, the response was even more dramatic. The AMC Loews theater on Manhattan's Upper West Side took the rare step of pulling the trailer from its screens after several complaints. "One lady was crying," says one of the theater's managers, Kevin Adjodha. "She was saying we shouldn't have [played the trailer]. That this was wrong ... I don't think people are ready for this."
We're about to find out. "United 93" is the first feature film to deal explicitly with the events of September 11, 2001, and is certain to ignite an emotional debate before and after it opens on April 28. Is it too soon? Should the film have been made at all? More to the point, will anyone want to see it? Other 9/11 projects are on the way as the fifth anniversary of the attacks approaches, most notably Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," starring Nicolas Cage, opening Aug. 9. But as the harbinger, "United 93" will take most of the heat, whether it deserves it or not.
The real United 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field after 40 passengers and crew fought back against the terrorists who had hijacked the plane. Writer-director Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Supremacy") has gone to great lengths to be respectful in his depiction of what occurred, proceeding with the film only after securing the approval of every victim's family. "Was I surprised at the unanimity? Yes. Very. Usually there are one or two families who are more reluctant," Greengrass writes in an e-mail. "I was surprised and humbled at the extraordinary way the United 93 families have welcomed us into their lives and shared their experiences with us." His team's research was meticulous. "They even went so far as to ask what my mother had been wearing on the plane," says Carole O'Hare, whose 79-year-old mother, Hilda Marcin, died on the flight. "They were very open and honest with us, and they made us a part of this whole project." Universal, which is releasing the film, plans to donate 10 percent of its opening weekend gross to the Flight 93 National Memorial Fund. That hasn't stopped criticism that the studio is exploiting a national tragedy. O'Hare thinks that's unfair. "This story has to be told to honor the passengers and crew for what they did," she says. "But more than that, it raises awareness. Our ports aren't secure. Our borders aren't secure. Our airlines still aren't secure, and this is what happens when you're not secure. That's the message I want people to hear."
It's unclear whether Americans will pay $9.50 to hear it. The A&E cable movie "Flight 93" drew 5.9 million viewers in January, the highest-rated show in the channel's history. But movies are different. "I don't want anyone to go who doesn't want to have this experience," says Adam Fogelson, Universal's president of marketing. "But when I see what's on screen, I feel comfortable that a lot of people will." Audiences seem to be split on the issue. "I don't think that's a movie I really want to see," says Jackie Alvarez, 73, of San Ramon, Calif., after seeing the trailer. "It gave me the creeps. It's way too soon." But 17-year-old Antoine Richardson of Memphis, Tenn., is looking forward to it. "I don't think it's exploitative or too soon," he says. "It helps us remember." As if any of us could forget.