A Red Carpet Tragedy

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

NEW YORK, April 25 -- Wicker baskets filled with mini-packs of tissues were piled near the exits at Tuesday night's debut screening of "United 93," and for a lot of people, they came in handy.

The movie, a creepily real look at the flight that crashed before it could reach the terrorists' target on Sept. 11, 2001, hit the Ziegfeld Theatre in midtown Manhattan like a hurricane of pain. The theater was filled with relatives and friends of those who died that day, and at the end of the film, the section where they sat -- in rows of seats in the balcony -- dissolved into a collective wail of grief. Have you ever heard 100 people crying at the same time? Sounds simply don't get any sadder.

And evenings don't come much stranger. This was the opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival and that meant that alongside the deadly serious business of this horrific national tragedy was the utterly silly business of a hip movie premiere. These two elements, let the record reflect, don't mix well. It was like a showdown of crass versus poignant. A squadron of public relations aides were in combat mode, chaperoning celebrities down a red carpet and introducing them to correspondents from shows such as "Entertainment Tonight." There were paparazzi on hand by the dozens, not all of them happy with the level of talent.

"All B-listers," said one, grimacing a little as he struggled for a better view of Tom Selleck, Carol Kane, Gabriel Byrne and Steve Buscemi. "They said Halle Berry was supposed to be here, but I think she bailed."

Amid all this was the heartbreaking testimony of the victims' relatives, who were escorted down the same red carpet and who gamely told their stories. Among them was Jack Grandcolas, whose wife, Lauren, died aboard United 93. She was supposed to take a later flight, he said, but showed up early at the Newark airport to return to California from her grandmother's funeral.

"She called to say 'I just want to tell you I love you,' " Grandcolas recalled. "It was really quiet in the background. There wasn't screaming. She sounded calm."

Left, Grace Hightower and husband Robert De Niro arrive at the premiere of
Left, Grace Hightower and husband Robert De Niro arrive at the premiere of "United 93." In a strange pairing of flippancy and reverence, both celebrities and victims' family were subject to the paparazzi.( - Getty Images North America)
Grandcolas was among the many relatives who sanctioned "United 93" and believe the film tells his wife's story in an ennobling and dignified manner. But there was the nagging sense in watching him and others Tuesday night that they were being deployed as a commercial equivalent of a human shield. Without their approval, after all, the film, which is directed by Paul Greengrass, would probably seem like the height of poor taste.

That sense was magnified when a spokesman for the relatives spoke before the film and announced that Universal Studios had agreed to donate 10 percent of the opening weekend gross to a hoped-for memorial in the field in Shanksville, Pa., where the plane crashed.

Just the opening weekend ? Even if that turns out to be real money, doesn't it seem a little tacky?

Not that the movie lacks nearly unbearable punch. It gives nothing away to reveal that "United 93" ends with the terrifying plunge into the ground, as the passengers struggle to gain control of the cockpit. Then the screen goes black, followed by a number of written postscripts and lengthy credits. The audience sat through every last line without budging and at the end applauded for a minute or so.

Leaving the theater felt like the end of a funeral -- quiet and grim. Even tough-guy Selleck looked devastated.

"It was hard to relive that day," said New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. "I can understand why some people wouldn't want to see it. But I'm glad I did."

It wasn't hard to find dissenters. That swarm of flacks asked that after the movie reporters refrain from speaking to family members, who were whisked down the Ziegfeld's escalator and out the door. But in the lobby of the theater, others stood around for a minute or two, numbly mulling it over.

"Well, it took 60 years before there was that movie by Michael Bay about Pearl Harbor," said an elderly man, who seemed rather peeved. "Isn't it nice that with the advance of movie technology, it now takes only just five years for a director to cash in on tragedy?"

A woman came and promptly grabbed his arm, before he could offer his name.

"And the guy's British," he snorted, as he was led away.

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