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When Hollywood Makes History

The FAA's Ben Sliney plays himself in
The FAA's Ben Sliney plays himself in "United 93." (By Jonathan Olley -- Universal Studios)

"I would prefer history tell itself, rather than have Hollywood tell it," said Carie Lemack, whose mother, Judy Larocque, was killed on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. "There's so much we just don't know. Unfortunately, they're taking artistic license with history and people will believe it's accurate. Speculation is okay for drama, but it's less okay when it's purporting to tell history. If they didn't know, why didn't they just leave it out?"

Lemack, co-founder of the organization Families of September 11, has not seen the movie, but she says she was surprised and upset by its trailer and promotional poster, which shows smoke pouring from the World Trade Center towers. She also says the filmmakers missed an opportunity to spur moviegoers to find out more about terrorism and call them to action. (Universal will donate 10 percent of the movie's first weekend ticket sales to a memorial fund.)

The decision to counterattack the terrorists was made after passengers learned that other hijacked planes had crashed, according to the 9/11 report and the film. In addition to the cockpit recordings, eyewitness accounts came from crew members and passengers, who used cellphones and air phones to contact people on the ground. But those accounts were sometimes contradictory and fragmentary, and the 9/11 Commission acknowledged that many details never will be known.

Levin acknowledges that in dramatizing the course of the flight, "United 93" makes creative leaps to fill in the blanks. For example, it's not clear who among the passengers spearheaded the response to the terrorists. One passenger, in a phone call from the plane, left it vague: "Everyone's running up to first class. I've got to go. Bye." The 9/11 Commission could not identify whose voices are heard as the passengers storm the cockpit door. "United 93" tackles this uncertainty with a reasonable assumption: that the charge was led by the strongest, most athletic men, including a judo champion.

Other scenes appear to be wholly invented. In one, a passenger who argued for cooperating with the hijackers is restrained by others as the counterattack begins. In another, the passengers are shown overwhelming two hijackers and apparently killing them. Both depictions might be dramatically satisfying, but there's no evidence that either of those events occurred.

Many of the victims' immediate relatives have endorsed the movie, saying it fairly represents their final hours. David Beamer, whose son Todd Beamer was killed, told the Associated Press this week: "Our personal reaction was one of relief, because they got it right. When it comes to September 11 and United Flight 93, we don't need another movie. This one got it."

But others question whether it was necessary to make even one movie about an event that many have lived through.

Bruce Hoffman, a Washington-based counterterrorism expert with the Rand Corp., notes that the news media have long avoided replaying some of the more disturbing images of Sept. 11. But, he says: "These equally horrible events are now being depicted as entertainment. I don't know why that's more acceptable.

"Producers and directors can have the purest and best intentions to re-create the horror and tragedy and bravery of the passengers. But the bottom line is, it's still entertainment. You have to question whether making it into entertainment cheapens and demeans it."

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