Samuel Franco stood outside the ticket booth, trying to decide which showing of “United 93” he and his wife should catch. He considered 9:45 p.m., then thought better of it. Too close to bedtime. Would they be able to sleep?
Barbara Manton had just emerged into the sunny afternoon, heart still pounding, from the same Manhattan movie theater. She spoke of similar pre-movie deliberations: Her husband hadn’t wanted to come at all. She had dragged him.
Rarely has a film, however critically praised, promised so much agony for viewers. “United 93” is 106 minutes of unrelenting pain with few precedents in cinematic history. And it raises questions about why we go to movies in the first place: Is it to be entertained? To be educated?
Or is it sometimes, in the words of another “United 93” moviegoer, something stronger: “To remember,” said Gabrielle Hanna. “To document. To pay tribute.”
One thing is certain: “United 93” is a unique film in many respects.
For one thing, there’s the immediacy of its painful subject. “Most other world-shattering events have not been depicted so soon,” says film historian Leonard Maltin. During World War II, Hollywood turned early U.S. defeats into patriotic rallying points: “Wake Island” (1942) and “Bataan” (1943) focused on heroism and the promise of ultimate victory. And films began facing issues like racism and anti-Semitism in the late ’40s and early ’50s — but, Maltin says, “they don’t compare to this film.”
“There are so few direct comparisons to something like this,” Maltin says. “This film is asking people to willingly face up to a tragic event that was deeply felt by virtually everyone in the world.”
A more recent work that comes to mind is “Schindler’s List,” Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning 1993 Holocaust film. And yet the film came a half-century after the events. “’Schindler’s List’ tries to show us what it was like,” said Maltin. “’United 93’ reminds us what it was like.”
Spielberg’s film focused on an industrialist, Oskar Schindler, who saved more than 1,000 Jewish lives. “Even that film has a certain sense of a little bit of hope held out,” says Jonathan Kuntz, who teaches film history at UCLA. And with other recent films like “Pearl Harbor” and “Munich,” he says, “at least there was a second half of the movie where there was a chance for some payback and revenge.”
“United 93,” on the other hand, simply ends with that devastating crash in the Pennsylvania field — all on board killed, of course, on a day that also saw terrible death and destruction in New York and Washington.
And the reverberations of Sept. 11 continue to echo through our world, with no hint of resolution on the horizon. “9-11 has not been resolved in the American psyche,” Kuntz says. “If it had, if all the terrorists had been wiped out, we’d be watching a different movie.”
And so, we’re left with 106 minutes of finely crafted horror, a film that New York Times critic Manohla Dargis called “the feel-bad American movie of the year.” Yet it seems that so far, people are going to see “United 93” in spite of its wrenching subject matter — or because of it.
On Sunday, Universal Pictures reported a solid $11.6 million opening weekend, putting the film, made for a modest $15 million, at No. 2 on the box-office list. “I never expected we would do this kind of business,” said Nikki Rocco, head of Universal distribution. She called it a “wonderful result” which showed that “it wasn’t too soon for a film about Sept. 11.”
Even so, “I can’t imagine an 18-year-old guy taking his date to this movie,” says Kuntz. The demographics bear him out — 71 percent of movie-goers the first weekend were 30 and older, Universal says, and only 11 percent saw it with a date, most going with a spouse or a friend.
Manton, 62, who looked shaken as she left the theater on Friday afternoon, said the movie was a positive step toward healing. “They shouldn’t keep this from us,” she said. “We all know what happened.”
As for Hanna, who saw the film in the same theater, she felt stunned by the impact of footage of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center, shown in the film from the vantage of the Newark control tower. “I stopped breathing,” said Hanna, executive director of the Provincetown International Film Festival. “It’s as if it were happening again.”
Franco, 29, remembers watching the second plane hit the trade center live on TV from his New York apartment. He said he and his wife had gone back and forth on whether to see “United 93.” First she was reluctant, then he was. But ultimately, he said, “it’s important to never forget.”
In that sentiment, he’s joined by another viewer, one who cooperated in the making of the film: David Beamer, father of Todd, one of the passengers who died on Flight 93. Asked by Larry King whether it was too soon for this film, he replied simply: “It’s too soon to forget.”