New York, N.Y.–A few Manhattanites were able to see United 93 early in the week when it played at the Tribeca Film Festival. Ordinary people had to wait until Friday the 28th, when the film went into wide release.
Jeffery, a born-and-raised New Yorker, made sure he left work early enough to get to the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 on Broadway and 68th for the first post-5:00 show. Concealed behind wraparound sunglasses and a knit cap, he mused as the theater filled up.
Physically, Jeffery had been close to 9/11. He was in Manhattan that morning. A friend’s husband, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, was trapped in the towers. He came, he said, because “I wanted to emotionally get in touch with it, as opposed to seeing it as a news item. I wanted to connect with the fright that must’ve taken place…to see what actually happened by getting as close to it as possible.”
By the time the lights went down the theater was nearly full. A young woman had shuffled into the seat next to Jeffery during the trailers. There were no children in the audience, no teenagers, and only few twentysomethings. The low, mumbling sound of Muslim prayers ruminated from speakers in the pitch black before the first image lighted the screen.
As United 93 began, the young woman rubbed her fingers together on her lap. By the middle she was pressing her palm against the front of her face. So was the man in the row in front of her, and the man two seats to her right. Three quarters of the way through, her palm was balled up into fist on her cheek. Jeffery groaned sporadically. For the length, not one cell phone rang or hummed. Nor appeared any telltale bubbles of blue-white LCD light that give away when people are checking the time. Just as the action was about to peak, Jeffery got up. He stood in the aisle, still transfixed, for a few seconds. Then he darted out.
A minute later the audience was bolting out of their seats and crowding into the aisles–before the house lights came back up, before the first credit rolled, in complete darkness.
In the lobby, the crowd waiting outside the bathroom for friends was somber. Several said that it hadn’t been much different than they had expected. And almost in unison they said that they wouldn’t have come if writer/director Paul Greengrass hadn’t gotten the go ahead of the Flight 93 families. “It would have been a Hollywood thing, not true,” said Courtney Carey.
When Giovanni Ureña emerged from the men’s room most had already ebbed out the far doors. After the movie he had had to splash cold water on his face. He muttered “wow” several times, and said he was still trying to breathe. But his thin moustache and goatee hemmed in an eager smile.
On Sunday, September 9th, Ureña had played a wedding with his band at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the North Tower. He worked in the South Tower, as did his girlfriend. They both had Monday the 10th off, but went in anyway, on a lark. They went to the top of floor where they scratched “Elsa + Giovanni Forever” on a piece of exposed metal. At work the next day Giovanni left his office on the 14th floor as soon as American 11 hit the North Tower, and escaped before the collapse. Elsa was still at hers on the 104th when United 175 hit, and did not escape. A small red pin on his sport coat’s lapel helps him remember a friend of his, in the fire department, who also died that day.
Watching the movie, he felt the same frightening sense of the surreal he had felt; the same helplessness. Though there was something else too.
“The fact that I came to see this,” he explained, his voice picking up, “it proves my strength, like them. [You watch it] and you know that you could do the same.”
Several of Giovanni’s band mates were wary of the film. “But I told them, ‘Hold on guys, it’s not Brokeback Mountain. You can face this.’” He plans to recommend it to all his friends.
In the Shadows
In Lower Manhattan the next morning the Regal Battery Park Stadium 11 played its first matinee of United 93 just before noon. Riding the escalators to the theater, upward past the large windows on the right, Ground Zero unfolds just a block away.
Less than 20 people were at the show. There were no groups and only a few couples. Almost everyone in the theater was sitting by themselves.
Mark Cicirelli, from Tribeca, came by himself. In 2001, he was living just a few blocks from the towers. Before he came he had thought about why he wanted to see it. He’d decided that if he felt it had anything to do with a macabre voyeurism, he wouldn’t go. Ultimately he decided it was that he wanted to understand that day better.
The rhythm of United 93 is human conversation: idle chatter between flight attendants, exclamations between air traffic controllers, wincing, shouting. The murmur is constant. Surround-sound speakers flood the dark room with it. In moments, it’s hard to tell if the murmur is coming from onscreen or off. Then the characters suddenly go quiet in awe. And it’s clear. No one in the theater is even whispering.
Through the first half of the movie, Mark was watching every event and thinking about where he had been at that exact moment. “That sort of added another layer on top of my own experience of that day,” he said later. In the second half, his perspective shifted to that of the passengers, and he found himself asking whether he would have done the same thing. Leaving the theater, he didn’t have a really different perspective on 9/11 than when he came in. It was more of a reminder.
The early afternoon outside was a crisp 60°, cloudless and uncomfortably bright. Being Saturday, the Ground Zero construction site was still, though the sound of crane winches and hammers from numerous other nearby projects reverberated across it. On the far side of the site from the theater, along Church Street , the usual stream of tourists were shading their eyes to read the museum-like placards and putting their digital cameras right up against the fence to get the closest shot. An Indian family meandered down the sidewalk. The daughter was saying to her father, “They made it happen. They made it happen. Otherwise they would have fallen like…,” she made a gesture with her hands that illustrated a tower tipping over.
A few feet away, Sue Cook from Seattle, and Julie Bunczak from Wasau, Wisconsin, both in town for a couple days, had taken in Ground Zero and were talking. Neither had seen United 93. Sue had initially been hesitant, but she said she was hearing a lot of good things, and would probably go.
Was it too soon for a movie like this?
“Since we’re not from New York, it’s kind of hard to say,” said Julie, “but just reading that timeline over there, there are things I’m already forgetting. And they’re starting to rebuild. It probably is the right time.”
– Louis Wittig is a writer living in New York City.