Films of horror

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 August, 2006, 12:00am

The horrors of September 11 may still loom large for many Americans, but that hasn't stopped plenty of them turning out to see two films about it.

Both Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, a reverential account of the heroic actions of two Port Authority officers, and United 93, a reconstruction of events on board the doomed flight that crashed into an empty field in Pennsylvania, have been well-received.

Stone's film took a strong US$19 million in its first five days. Audiences seemed to like it - studio polls showed that four out of every five said they'd recommend the film to a friend. The likely reaction to United 93 was less certain, but it has performed better than expected, and was praised by audiences for its objectivity.

Even US critics, who usually disagree with mainstream audiences, liked the films. Newsweek's David Ansen, a generally restrained pundit, said he found World Trade Center cathartic. 'It celebrated the ties that bind us, the bonds that keep us going, the goodness that stands as a rebuke to the horror of that day. It feels like the 9/11 movie we need.'

United 93 was also well-received, with director Paul Greengrass praised for avoiding melodrama and sentimentality.

However, there were those who decided not to see either film. 'This has nothing to do with politics,' says Richard Porton, co-editor of New York's Cineaste magazine. 'They just don't see the point of reliving one of the most depressing chapters in recent American history.'

But others regarded the movies as helpful in coming to terms with the attacks and their aftermath. According to studio estimates, box-office takings for World Trade Center were slightly higher in New York City than elsewhere.

'These films seem to be in bad taste when you consider the feelings of all the relatives of people who lost their lives,' says Richard Feifer, a New York-based advertising executive who witnessed the attacks up close. 'But I've always had an obsession with what it must have been like to be aboard flight 93, or to be inside the WTC just before it collapsed. So the idea of seeing those moments dramatised is eerily fascinating to me.'

John Farmer, a former New Jersey attorney-general and an adviser to the 9/11 commission, wrote in The Washington Post: '[United 93, above] is closer in truth to any account the government put out before the 9/11 commission investigation. We can watch the movie and wonder at a government so lost in spin, that it took Hollywood to set the record straight.'

Stone's apolitical World Trade Center also recreates the day in meticulous detail. But it's cliched rather than realistic. The event is reduced to a typical Hollywood story about overcoming impossible obstacles.

'A certain percentage of the public wants to see something affirmative in the events of 9/11 and, for that reason, might welcome the old-fashioned moral uplift of Stone's movie,' says Porton.

One little-discussed issue is that the two studios - Universal and Paramount - stand to make a lot of money from the films. World Trade Center, for instance, was budgeted at US$65 million, a figure it will recoup in spades at the box office. In effect, the studios are making money from other people's tragedies - it's a kind of war profiteering. Both studios tried to head off such criticism by donating 10 per cent of the opening weekend's box office to charity. That's chickenfeed once international releases and DVD profits have been factored in.

But that hasn't deterred viewers from spending money at the box office to relive the horrors of that tragic day.

United 93 opens today; World Trade Center opens on October 26