After postponing release dates for some films and scrapping others entirely, Hollywood studios found themselves with a tough road to hoe in the weeks after the September attacks. It”s been a fine line to tread for Tinsel Town execs who”ve balanced, on one hand, a need to comfort Americans with the need, on the other hand, to avoid commercial exploitation in the form of simple flag waving, feel good products that belie the magnitude of the tragedy. To that end, its been a reserved bunch of Hollywood producers during a hesitant time in Tinsel Town that have collectively stayed away from bringing any aspect of this past fall”s terrorist story to film. That is, until now.
After a self-imposed embargo on creating content based on the War on Terror or the attacks that spawned it, CBS officials announced that the network was developing a made-for-TV docudrama exploring the final minutes of the United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in rural Pennsylvania on Sept. 11.
On the heels of this announcement from CBS came word last week that two other studios had began development on projects based around the attacks. One such company, Canada based Alliance Atlantis Entertainment, who plans to explore the lives of the terrorists prior to their attack, told The Washington Times that they were proceeding with caution well aware of the gravity their story. It”s difficult to imagine a fictionalized version of the events being as dramatic as the actual experience, company president Peter Sussman told the Washington paper.
No doubt this is the reality that CBS officials are considering as they move forward with their plans to tell the aptly named tale of the Pennsylvanian crash when they unveil “The Real Story of Flight 93.” Reportedly, the producers who include the filmmakers who brought the stories of JonBenet Ramsey and O.J. Simpson to the CBS miniseries format have decided to focus their picture on “official action” rather than the speculative accounts of how passengers may have foiled their hijackers.
That notwithstanding, I wouldn”t expect CBS to miss a chance to bring to screen the story”s media-made hero, Todd Beamer, whose fateful quipping of “let”s roll,” heard on a cell phone before the plane went down, has become more than a motivational moniker. Beamer, who some speculate had a hand in bringing the plane down outside of Pittsburgh rather than in Washington as experts feared the hijackers had planned, has received the lion”s share of attention while the media has salivated over the inspirational battle cry he”s reported to have delivered before the passengers stormed the cockpit.
The story is the stuff producers must dream of a potential script wrapped up in notions of courage and drama so convincing and so real that that it can”t miss. But in the rush to bring Sept. 11 to the screen that we”re about to see, how much tinkering with history will we accept? CBS is right to take an approach that doesn”t attempt to piece together events that would take liberties with the truth after all who knows the complete truth about what occurred in those fateful minutes above Pennsylvania? But in the subsequent films that are sure to be made where we see terrorists plot and perhaps even buildings fall, how much creative license will society allow on topics that touch so many so deeply?
Creative interpretations are hot topics these days in Hollywood when we talk about the “truth.” Just last week Richard Willing of USA Today told readers the story of how films like “Titanic,” “The Hurricane,” “The Perfect Storm” and even the current “A Beautiful Mind” have fallen prey to critics who”ve found an alarming pattern in Hollywood studios taking liberties in their adaptations of “real” events. Saying nothing of the obvious flair for revisionist history displayed by some filmmakers like Oliver Stone, studio brass are increasingly sweating films that only mildly tweak history or change details. This summer a federal court in Florida will hear arguments from the ex-wife of the character played by George Clooney in “The Perfect Storm,” the 2000 film that allegedly harmed the man”s reputation.
But making movies about Sept. 11 and the emotions that come with it is different than telling the story of an ill-fated fishing boat and its unheralded captain. This is a story we all seem to own and these are historic events we”re less willing to see tweaked.
The point is, in an era when people see money made from their deceased loved-ones or reputations impugned by films eager to cash in on the real-life stories of courage and heroism, recreating history isn”t as easy as it once might have been. With that in mind, CBS and the other studios bent on bringing the “realities” of Sept. 11 to a miniseries or theater near you would be wise to tread lightly before dollar signs having them saying “let”s roll.”
Geoffrey Gagnon can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org