How to celebrate a film on tragedy?
If the biopic has been a resilient award winner during the last few years, there is another form bubbling up that might best be thought of as the tragi-pic. Exploring circumstances leading up to and following a singular event is the main thrust of such recent films as “Flags of Our Fathers,” “The Queen” and “Bobby.” Perhaps nothing exemplifies the emerging trend quite so strongly as “World Trade Center” and “United 93,” both exploring the highly charged emotional terrain of Sept. 11.
Both those films began their awards campaigns in earnest last week. Paramount hosted a widely covered event featuring “World Trade Center” and filmmaker Oliver Stone in conjunction with their receiving awards for movie of the year and director of the year from the Hollywood Film Festival. Universal mailed out screeners of “United 93,” some with a reproduction of a print advertisement that described it as “the film you need to see.”
Public support of the films by survivors and victims’ families -- who do not see themselves in any way as awards-season operatives -- points up the delicate line that filmmakers and studios must walk this season as they try to reap honors for films that draw on real-life tragedy.
“I’m not here to promote the film,” Will Jimeno, one of the two men rescued from the rubble of the World Trade Center, said of Stone’s movie. “You want to see the film, that’s up to you. I’m open to speaking about the film because of the positiveness of it.” With regard to the more immediate topic of assessing the film in light of any sort of awards campaign, Jimeno is circumspect. “As far as awards season goes, that’s out of my hands. I understand the Academy Awards is its own political machine.”
“United 93" and “World Trade Center,” which opened in April and August, respectively, did moderately well at the box office, though neither would be considered a blockbuster. “United 93" was better reviewed, although the notices for “World Trade Center” were still largely favorable.
“United 93" was released on DVD in early September, and the DVD of “World Trade Center” is scheduled to be released in December.
Paul Greengrass, writer and director of “United 93,” the story of one of the four airliners hijacked Sept. 11, acknowledged that the film may not have yet reached its widest possible audience. “It was always obvious to me that some people would come, some people would definitely never come, and there would be a body of people who would wait and see how the film was judged. And that I think is entirely right.”
For Michael Shamberg, who along with producing partner Stacey Sher is among the credited producers on “World Trade Center,” “The big thing for us is to have people see it.
“I’d hate for anyone to say they saw it and didn’t like it,” he said. But for those resistant to seeing the film in a movie theater, “it’s our hope that when we send out screeners, the rest of the people will see it.”
The films are fact-based, whether the focus was the battle of Iwo Jima, Sept. 11 or the death of a princess, and yet they are fictional dramas. Nevertheless, there is an added level of responsibility for filmmakers. “The Queen,” for example, portrays the working relationship between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II during the time just after the death of Princess Diana. Peter Morgan, writer of “The Queen,” referred to his script as “an act of imagination,” admitting, “With real people you do have to be careful.”
In the case of “World Trade Center,” which tells the story of the rescue of two Port Authority officers trapped beneath the rubble of the fallen buildings, the actual survivors and some of their rescuers were active in the film’s production, and have been available to talk about their experiences and continue to discuss the film.
One of the men involved in the rescue effort, Scott Strauss, said he was “concerned” when approached about acting as a technical advisor on the production and that his first impulse was to turn down the offer. But he eventually changed his mind and spoke to the filmmakers before the shoot and spent time on the set during production.
Strauss continues to be involved with the film because “they were true to their word -- Paramount and Oliver and everybody in the project. I feel a need to help them because they did us right. I need to do them right. If they need me to help with something, I certainly will. The Hollywood thing and awards, I don’t really know how that goes. I was a city cop, Hollywood is all new to me.”
All the emerging tragi-pics, many of which are thought to have potential to garner creative recognition, deal with dire circumstances and people in crisis.
Due to the extreme feelings that memories of 9/11 in particular bring up, it is understandable that there has been some reluctance on the part of a broader audience to buy tickets. After all, this film transports you back into the events of one of the grimmest days in American history. There is a feeling that there is a wide swath of viewers, awards voters or not, waiting to be tapped on home video.
“I think more people will feel comfortable dealing with their own wave of emotion,” said “World Trade Center” co-producer Sher of the DVD release. “The film is extremely emotional, the event is extremely emotional, and more people might feel more comfortable watching the film at home because they might be afraid of what their reaction might be in public.”
Indeed, since “for your consideration” screeners of “United 93" have reached awards voters, there has been a growing buzz about the film’s Oscar prospects.
Greengrass agreed that some people might be more willing to watch the film at home, where they can deal in private with the emotions it sparks. “You could feel as we made it and came up to release,” he continued, “the feelings are very, very raw. There’s something so challenging about the whole idea of making a film about that subject. I think it awakened anxieties in many people’s minds. Is it right? Should it be done? I totally understood those feelings, and in the end, the film has to justify itself; there’s a high bar for a film like that. Being OK isn’t good enough.
“I hope people come to it now saying clearly it’s earned its place as a part of the national conversation -- maybe I can have a look at that and see for myself.”