United 93

United 93

United 93

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 6 2006 5:34 PM

United 93

A brief Slate debate about the controversial new movie.

Slate'sstory ideas come mostly out of the daily flurry of reply-all messages sent around by editors and writers. This week, we had an unusually interesting and contentious e-mail conversation about the United 93 trailer, which has drawn objections from families of 9/11 victims. Rather than commission an article with a single point of view, we decided to try sharing with readers our internal debate on the subject. What follows is a conversation that grew out of the e-mail discussion we had yesterday.

Click here to view the United 93 trailer.

Meghan: Earlier this week, we were debating whether to assign a piece on the controversy over United 93 trailer. But I was listening to people on the radio today who seemed truly upset by having seen the United 93 trailer, and I could understand why. And I began thinking about whether the unease was largely about the movie itself, or, in part, a mechanical problem caused by advertising a movie like this: The movie does need to be advertised, and it shouldn't not be (if we're going to accept the premise that it's OK for such a movie to exist, and I do). But one woman—I can't recall, but I think she knew someone, maybe her husband, who had died in the WTC—said she was shocked because there was no warning what the trailer was going to be.


Is there a way in which, with events this recent and real, we need another kind of warning from the MPAA? (Something other than the tiny box that says, "The following preview contains violence.") Should the trailer come with a short, typed notice announcing what it is, so people can look away (and plug their ears if they like)? Or is it really that a plurality of Americans simply aren't ready for a fictionalization of 9/11? How often, if ever, have there been films like this so hard on the heels of a nationally traumatic event? (Pearl Harbor, for instance.) Paul Greengrass—the director of United 93—did a great job with Bloody Sunday, another film that was nationally sensitive, for the Irish. But obviously it came out decades after the event itself. What do you think?

Dahlia: Interesting problem. On the one hand, you can't pitch everything in the media to the most fragile possible viewer—that's why not all TV needs to be appropriate for toddlers. But on the other hand, and as you say, Meghan, 9/11 wasn't just a recent national trauma, it's also a trauma for which we have no analogue. There's no template yet for what it all meant or where to put it. So, while I am not always sympathetic to claims that this trauma is a different sort of trauma, and these survivors and relatives of victims are a different sort of survivor and relative, I do think we need to concede that 9/11 really is different, and to be a bit more careful of sensibilities. That, and that the idea of a shocking movie trailer is awfully new and raw, too. Who has really wrapped their head around the notion that they may go to a theater to see a totally different movie and be subjected to something utterly scarring? Shouldn't we be extra careful here, where the viewer is not only uniquely sensitive but also uniquely unprepared?

That said, my questions in response to Meghan's post are mostly technical: Would some short, typed notice really give viewers the time to leave the theater? Would blocking one's ears suffice? I can think of no mechanism that would really be practical, other than modifying the trailers (censorship?) or somehow warning theatergoers (a note on the door that says the previews will contain graphic images of 9/11?) 

June: My worry is that we've given the 9/11 victims' families too much power.

It's hard to imagine anything more brutal and painful than losing a loved one in an act of terror, and the rest of us should listen to the views of the bereaved when it comes to deciding how those acts should be remembered, but theirs can't be the only voices that matter. They don't get to control how terrorism is represented in movie trailers, architecture, or anything else.

The family trump card has been played in other countries. When Spanish filmmaker Julio Medem made La Pelota Vasca, a documentary about the Basque Country told through a series of interviews, the Association of the Victims of Terror picketed screenings and made Medem's artistic life hell because they felt the film was soft on ETA. In The Permanent Way, David Hare's verbatim play about the decline of the British railways, crash survivors describe their split with the bereaved—where survivors have to move on from unspeakable horror and piece their lives together, the bereaved are inflexible and controlling.

There is a lot of upsetting stuff in the world. Why do 9/11 victims—and victims of terror generally—get special treatment?

Michael: Sure, it's silly to imagine a message such as "Attention Victims of 9/11: What You're About to See Is Really Shocking" in front of the trailer to United 93. What's the point? It's not as though you can cordon off the New York skyline. But I do think 9/11 is a special case. For those who lost someone on that day, the 9/11 footage is not "news" or "history," it's the replay of a murder. The trailer shows the devastating shot of the second plane about to hit the second tower—complete with CNN logo. Watching that is much different than seeing a fictional re-creation of a horrific event that happened to you or someone you know.