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Too soon for ‘United 93’

Liz Coffey | Monday, April 24, 2006

It’s just too soon for this tagline: “September 11, 2001. Four planes were hijacked. Three of them reached their target. This is the story of the fourth.”

It’s the tagline for “United 93,” a movie, told in real-time, about the plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on that fateful morning.

Maybe I’ve watched a little too much cable television over the years, but to me, that sounds an awful lot like the tagline of MTV’s hit reality show. You know it – “This is the story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house and have their lives taped, to see what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”

And while “United 93” is the story of 45 people (many of whom were indeed strangers) who chose to take a plane out of Newark International Airport on a sunny September morning, this story – unlike the one on MTV – is not entertainment. Moreover, unlike MTV’s contrived “Real World,” this actually was the real world. It still is.

In fact, Osama bin Laden, the orchestrator of the 9/11 attacks, is still wandering the deserts of Pakistan. And from wherever he is, he’s still making videotapes and threatening more attacks against America. Each time a new tape is released, the al Qaeda leader still makes the front page of American newspapers.

In a United States Federal Courthouse, Zacarias Moussaoui is currently on trial for conspiring with al Qaeda to commit the 9/11 attacks. During the past few days, the jury has heard testimony from those who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon, including Michael Williams, a man who lost his 24-year-old son in the World Trade Center. Before the attacks, Michael was helping to plan his son’s wedding. After the attacks, he helped to plan his funeral.

On Wednesday, the jury will hear similarly gripping stories from the families of Flight 93 victims. Flight 93’s cockpit voice recording will be played publicly for the first time. Then on Friday, April 28, a major motion picture will be released. It’s just too soon.

But we all love movies about heroes, right? Who didn’t love “Batman” or “Indiana Jones?” And the men and women of Flight 93 were undoubtedly heroes. But if this Friday night I ask a friend what movies are playing at the local theater and she lists “United 93” as one of the options, I can’t see myself exclaiming, “Oh yes! I really wanted to see that one!” That just wouldn’t seem right.

I couldn’t buy a greasy tub of popcorn and sit in a cushiony reclining chair to watch something so similar to what jurors are watching (and weeping over) in an Alexandria, Virginia courthouse. I just couldn’t do it. The jurors are listening to the testimony in an attempt to decide whether or not to give Moussaoui the death penalty. But it’s too soon for me to watch that in a movie theater. It’s just not the right time.

So when is the right time?

When September 11 stops being news. And that might take a while.

On July 18, 1863, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw led the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, the first all-black regiment, into battle at Fort Wagner. The group experienced catastrophic losses. One hundred and twenty-six years later, TriStar Pictures released a movie about it.

This movie, “Glory,” received much critical acclaim. It grossed over 25 million dollars. Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his performance. I even watched it in my Civil War class last semester. And I loved it.

But I don’t need to watch a movie about Flight 93 in my American History class. I already saw live footage of the Shanksville, Pennsylvania field in my second period AP American History class, back on a September morning when I was a junior in high school.

We don’t need a major motion picture about September 11. We can still see footage of it on CNN. Note that CNN is a 24-hour news network, not to be confused with E!, the 24-hour entertainment network.

A film about September 11 will never be viewed as entertainment in the same way that MTV’s “The Real World” is. One hundred and twenty-six years from now, the story of September 11 will undoubtedly evoke strong emotions in those who didn’t watch two airplanes hit the World Trade Center towers in the middle of their American History class. But for these students, the events of September 11 will no longer be front-page news. For these students, 9/11 will truly be American history.

Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001. It was part of the most devastating attack ever on American soil. Four and a half years later, Universal Studios is releasing a movie about it. That’s just too soon.

Liz Coffey is a junior American Studies major. She is studying in Washington, D.C. for the semester and can be contacted at ecoffey@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer