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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 April 2006, 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
9/11 film premiere ignites debate
By Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

Not far from the site where the World Trade Center towers came crashing down, United 93 - the first Hollywood film about the events of 11 September 2001 - has its premiere on Tuesday.

A scene from United 93
United 93 has been criticised for both content and timing
The film has ignited a debate over whether American audiences are ready to see the events of 9/11 depicted on the big screen.

One man who has already seen it is David Beamer, the father of United 93 passenger Todd Beamer - who is thought to have led the counter-attack against the hijackers with the famous phrase: "Let's roll".

Mr Beamer's response was raw and emotional.

"You come out of that movie, and the first thing you've got to do is - if you haven't told a loved one you love them lately, then give them a hug.

"Because we don't know when our last opportunity is to do these good things."

Terrible choices

Paul Greengrass is the British director who set the cameras rolling on the story of the hijacked plane that crashed after a struggle between hijackers and passengers.

Paul Greengrass
Greengrass says his previous work prepared him for the film
"Sitting in the rear nine rows of that aircraft, they knew what they were facing," he said.

"We didn't - we were watching on television, wondering what was going on. They knew. They could see.

"And the choice facing them in that last half was: 'What are we going to do? Do we do something? Do we do nothing? What are the consequences of doing nothing? What are the consequences of doing something?'

"And that is the choice facing us today."

Multiple controversies

The director says his background in politically charged dramas - such as Bloody Sunday, which he wrote and directed, and Omagh, which he co-wrote - was the perfect preparation for a film that was wading into controversial waters.

United Airlines flight 93 crash site
United Airlines flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania

The film tells the overall picture of 11 September, refracted through the struggle on board flight 93.

It is an - at times - controversial vision of how the authorities on the ground responded to the drama in the skies.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has already attacked some aspects of the film: "Now, stop and think of this for a second. Can't find the president? It's not possible."

But the real question has not been over the content of the film, but over its timing.

In the run-up to this premiere, United 93 has united the US media in a single cry: "Is the country ready for it?"

Jeff Dishart, a United 747 pilot and aviation industry media consultant who has seen the film - is not convinced.

"Was it necessary? The jury's still out. In its worst expression, this movie was voyeurism and a possibly - if you'll give me the licence - pornographic look at the events. Too intrusive."

But many on the political right here are doing the unthinkable - supporting a Hollywood film made by a liberal director.

They see it as a timely reminder of what the war on terror is all about.

'Ordinary courage'

What probably helped to convince them is the distinct absence of a Hollywood cast.

Paul Greengrass said he had made that choice intentionally.

There's no passage of time for us that would say: 'Later on wouldn't hurt'
David Beamer
"The people who got on United 93 that day were not exceptional people. They were ordinary people on their way to work.

"If they were portrayed by movie stars you would never feel that essential ordinariness. And if you can't understand that ordinariness, you can't understand the courage."

And - to the director's relief - his vision of ordinary courage has been welcomed by the audience he has been the most anxious to please, the United 93 families.

For David Beamer the debate about timing makes assumptions that are simply not true.

"We replay - in effect - that day in our mind's eye every day since 11 September," he said.

"There's no passage of time for us that would say: 'Later on would be better, would be less disruptive, wouldn't hurt.'"

For the families, then, the film could be part of the healing process - but what remains to be seen is if the wider US movie-going public wants cinema as catharsis.

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