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ENTERTAINMENT

The mysteries of 'United 93'

Will audiences pay to relive 9/11?

By Todd Leopold
CNN

United 93
Passengers get ready to challenge the hijackers in "United 93."

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Eye on Entertainment
Movies
Robin Williams

(CNN) -- There's been a lot of debate over the new film "United 93," much of it revolving around the question: Is it too soon?

It's been less than five years since the September 11 attacks, so putting out a movie about the day -- even one about the passengers who famously, and heroically, fought back against the terrorists -- is like ripping a scab off a fresh wound. (Do you think it's too soon? Send us your opinion.)

But moving quickly in Hollywood, even on sensitive subjects, is nothing new. "The Best Years of Our Lives," about the sometimes difficult acclimation of war veterans to civilian life, came out a year after the end of World War II. "Battleground," the stark story of a squad in the Battle of the Bulge, came out five years after that brutal engagement.

Many other war movies have come out during wartime, and films about other subjects -- civil rights, infamous crimes -- have come out fairly close to the actual events they dramatize.

So, maybe the argument is, "Too much." Too much intensity, too much violence.

But "United 93," though rated R, contains virtually no graphic violence and far less profanity than your average Quentin Tarantino movie. It's intense, but many movies are. In fact, though the ads have focused on the passengers and crew of the flight, a sizable chunk of the movie is devoted to the sober, if sometimes harried, reaction of professionals doing their jobs: air traffic controllers, the Federal Aviation Administration and the military.

So why the trepidation?

We were all there. We all saw the second plane hit the tower; we all saw the fiery hole in the Pentagon; we all saw the twin towers collapse. We all felt the panic of not knowing what was going to happen next -- of feeling, in an instant, the world turn upside down.

For the passengers and crew of United 93, for thousands in New York and Washington, it happened in painful, tragic ways we'll never comprehend. But there was no happy ending for anybody.

Which brings up another question: Will anyone see a movie without a happy ending?

Eye on Entertainment wonders.

Eye-opener

"United 93" director and writer Paul Greengrass ("Bloody Sunday," "The Bourne Supremacy") cut his teeth on documentaries, and it shows. "United 93" plays as if cameras had been stationed throughout the plane, the air traffic control centers and military headquarters. Nobody appears to be acting.

Greengrass even cast some of the people who responded on September 11. FAA operations manager Ben Sliney plays himself, as do a number of air traffic controllers and military personnel.

The docudrama realism does have its drawbacks. Several critics have complained that there's little insight into individual characters; the film barely even mentions characters' names. Before the terrorists hijack the flight, the passengers on United 93 make small talk or sleep, just as anyone would do; after the hijacking, their minimal dialogue is all about their situation.

But nobody has questioned the film's power.

" 'United 93' is a tremendous experience of fear, bewilderment, and resolution, and, when you replay the movie in your head afterward, you are likely to think that Greengrass made all the right choices," wrote David Denby in The New Yorker.

"This is the best movie so far this year," Richard Roeper said on "Ebert & Roeper."

So, with all that, do you want to see it? You'll have to decide for yourself.

"United 93" opens Friday.

On screen

  • Anyone who reads Esquire knows that director Barry Sonnenfeld, who writes that magazine's column on electronic gadgets, has been working on a film called "RV." The movie, which stars Robin Williams, Cheryl Hines and Jeff Daniels, finally gets its release Friday. (Watch a sneak peek of summer's big movies -- 3:33)
  • "Stick It," with Jeff Bridges and Missy Peregrym, is about an ex-gymnast "bad girl" who gets a second chance with the sport. It opens Friday.
  • "Akeelah and the Bee," starring Keke Palmer as a champion speller, opens Friday. The film also stars Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett and Curtis Armstrong.
  • On the tube

  • "Saturday Night Live" gives itself over to resident genius Robert Smigel and his "TV Funhouse" bits and shorts, 11:30 p.m. ET Saturday, NBC.
  • AMC's "Thrill Me" marathon features "Carrie," "The Silence of the Lambs," "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and others. The good news: There are some good movies here. The bad news: They'll be interrupted by dozens of commercials, as last week's "Godfather" marathon was. Saturday and Sunday, AMC.
  • Sound waves

  • Pearl Jam's new album, simply titled "Pearl Jam" (J Records), comes out Tuesday.
  • "10,000 Days" (Volcano), Tool's new CD, comes out Tuesday.
  • "Goodbye Alice in Wonderland" (Atlantic), the latest by Jewel, comes out Tuesday.
  • "Blood Money" (Interscope) by Mobb Deep comes out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • I love books such as Bill Carter's "Desperate Networks" (Doubleday), which immerse themselves in the politics and backbiting of entertainment corporations. Carter, a New York Times reporter, has plenty of experience in chronicling such subjects: He's the author of "The Late Shift," which was about the Letterman-Leno battle over "The Tonight Show." "Desperate Networks" comes out Tuesday.
  • "Blue Monday" (Da Capo) is a biography of one of rock 'n' roll's oft-ignored and underrated creators: Fats Domino, still tickling the ivories at 78, and the New Orleans scene. Rick Coleman's book comes out Monday.
  • Anne Tyler's new novel, "Digging to America" (Knopf), comes out Tuesday.
  • "The Big Bam" (Doubleday), by Leigh Montville, is yet another biography of Babe Ruth. Why do we need another biography of Babe Ruth, you ask? Well, for one thing, Montville is a terrific writer. For another, he had the research, stories and cooperation of previous Ruth chroniclers -- and the best of those, Robert Creamer, put out his Ruth bio in 1974. So we're due. "The Big Bam" comes out Tuesday.
  • Video center

  • "The Family Stone" comes out on DVD Tuesday.
  • Season six of "King of the Hill" hits DVD Tuesday.
  • At the height of their "I Love Lucy" fame, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz made a slapstick opus called "The Long, Long Trailer." The film, beloved by "Lucy" aficionados, gets the DVD treatment Tuesday.
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