I’m not sure that I have ever teared up in an interview like I did with family members of two of the passengers who died on United 93. Maybe I’m entering the Barbara Walters phase of my career, but I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with emotion when Peggy Beamer, mother of Todd, made famous for “Let’s roll” (a line returned to its proper context in United 93, by the way), talked about how what made her saddest was seeing her grandchildren grow up without their daddy. Even when transcribing the interview the sound of her choking back tears filled my eyes with tears of my own.
United 93 is a powerful film, filled with the same kind of emotion It’s been dividing audiences since it was announced, let alone since the trailer began screening. Many people think that it’s too soon, a sentiment with which I strongly disagree. I was glad to see the real life United 93 family members on the schedule for the New York City press day this past Monday, because I wanted to be able to have their opinion about when a movie like this is appropriate.
Of course it’s a foregone conclusion that they would think the movie was appropriate – every single family of the United 93 victims participated in the making of this film. Still, it’s important to have them articulate why they think the movie should be made now, even if I don’t always agree with their reasoning.
It’s incredibly humbling to be speaking with these people, and introducing yourself to them as being from CHUD.com – well, that’s always an interesting moment. It’s humbling, and it’s odd, but I’m incredibly grateful. 9/11 has been a day that has haunted me for five years, and seeing this film was part of a healing process, as was talking to these people. I hope that most of you look past your doubts and ignore your personal comfort levels next week to consider getting out and seeing this movie when it opens. For those of you in New York City, the movie will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival next week, playing at a theater that overlooks the hole in the ground where the Twin Towers once stood.
The people we spoke to were David and Peggy Beamer, parents of Todd, and Gordon Felt, brother of Edward Felt. For more information on how you can support the creation of a Flight 93 national memorial, go to www.honorflight93.org.
Todd Beamer and Edward Felt
Q: What was your reaction to the way your loved ones were portrayed in the film?
Mrs. Beamer: I thought they did a good job. Without any names we could tell who the people were. We could pick out who they were.
Felt: I was very happy with the way my brother was portrayed in the film. Universal spent a lot of time – hours – with the families, in meetings. I thought they did a wonderful job of incorporating our input into the creation of these characters.
Q: Was there any hesitation at all for you?
Felt: The only hesitation I had at all was at first, whether it was going to be done properly. Making sure that if was going to be done it was going to be done right. Universal quickly won me over to their side just by their demonstration of the amount of time they would take. By getting Paul Greengrass on board, who has a history of making very successful productions along these lines.
Mr. Beamer: It’s surely a natural reaction to have some concern about when it’s all said an done, what’s the product going to be? Our confidence grew over the course of the process because of the interaction and the attitude they brought to the project. When we saw it, my reaction at the end was to have some relief because I believe they did a very fine job of telling an important story that needed to be told, needed to be captured, and in a sense needed to be archived. Because this will last; it’s not just for the current generation but for ones to come.
Q: Have you attended the Moussaoui trial? Have you been able to hear the cockpit recorder they played for the families?
Felt: I first heard the cockpit recorder a few years back when the FBI brought the families together in Princeton, and we were able to listen. I have not personally attended the Moussaoui trial, although there have been family members who have been actively going to witness the trial.
Mr. Beamer: We have not attended the trial. I believe it’s, albeit coincidental, I frankly think it’s fortuitous that the timing is such that here we are with this movie being released in the next days and here we are in the last stages of the trial. One of the things the movie does, which we believe is important, is that it accurately depicts the ends to which our enemies will go to inflict pain and ultimately defeat our way of life. The movie puts a but of a face to this and reminds us that the war continues, and lo and behold one of the real faces of the enemy is having his day in court, also reminding us about their objective and their mission. Which hasn’t changed.
Q: How do you feel about the portrayal of the terrorists in the film?
Mr. Beamer: It’s chilling. And I think along with the rest of the production it’s believable and realistic. There’s no debating their approaches, and we unfortunately see further evidence of how they believe to wage a war daily. It’s another part of the realism of the production.
Felt: I thought the graphic representation of the events and the violence was an important part of this movie. This is not a story that should be sugar coated. This is a story about terrorists, death, people trying to alter our way of life and threatening our country. I think those actors should be commended; it couldn’t be easy to portray those characters. But I think it did a fine job.
Q: But some of the terrorists are shaded with some humanity. Prior to the flight they pray. Before boarding one of them makes a phone call and says “I love you” to someone. And at least the chief hijacker, the pilot, is beset with some very human doubt.
Felt: There’s no doubt they were human. And then they killed our loved ones. I have no sympathy. I think they were portrayed as perhaps real people who had some questions, but nevertheless they acted in a violent manner. I think that there’s no excuse for that.
Q: How did 9/11 change the way you thought about jihadists?
Mr. Beamer: In my case it certainly amplified the threat and was a stark reminder as to what it might be they are planning next. As we know in this great city that day wasn’t the first attack on the World Trade Center, and it goes back years and years – to the US Cole, to the Marines in Beirut. I guess what history also says to me is that our counter-attacks, the actions we took in prior times, weren’t sufficient to prevent the next and worst act of aggression on our homeland. I wish Saddam had fallen the first time. I wish then-President Clinton would have authorized Osama be gone when we had those opportunities. Who knows what the world might be like today? Taking that a step further, continuing our counter-attack against this enemy, wherever he is, is the thing we are doing and should continue to do. Because they’re not going away.
Q: You met the actor who played Todd for the first time today. What was that like? Did you wish you had met him before now? And Gordon, had you had any interactions with the actor who played your brother Edward?
Mr. Beamer: Go ahead, Peggy. What did you think of this guy David?
Mrs. Beamer: I thought he did an excellent job portraying Todd. Meeting him today was good. He’s a good looking guy!
Q: Do you wish you had met him earlier?
Mrs. Beamer: I guess I hadn’t really thought about that.
Mr. Beamer: The way it turned out is fine. Kate Solomon acted as the intermediary; Kate and Peggy would have these conversations about mannerisms, or how Todd might have dressed, or how Todd’s body language might have been whilst praying with Lisa Jefferson on the phone. All of these things were incorporated in the movie. I caught my breath a little bit when I saw David in the movie because there is a physical resemblance, which I found to be the case in some of the other casting.
Felt: I have not met the actor who portrayed my brother. I’m looking forward at this point to meeting him, to thank him for his portrayal.
Q: Had you wished to meet him?
Felt: I think if I didn’t have faith in the amount of research Universal had done, I would have liked to meet him. But I too saw a lot of mannerisms incorporated in to the portrayal of my brother that came from my family.
Mr. Beamer: We further think that the fact in the movie that the passengers are not identified by name is absolutely the right way to do it. One, it’s realistic. Two, this was a group effort. We liked that a lot.
Felt: It also gives us all an opportunity to watch the movie and put ourselves in their place. You watch this film and you’re right there, on board, taking part almost. And almost wishing it would end differently than it did. One thing I would like people to take away from this movie is, deep in their hearts to think and hope that if they were put in that position they would fight back for what they know is right.
Mr. Beamer: Can I ask a question? Have you done much flying lately?
Q: I have.
Mr. Beamer: One reason I think we need to maintain our vigilance and keep our guard up and never forget – I remember flying a lot after 9/11, and I remember on the airplanes being asked – they didn’t know who I was, but I happened to be sitting on the aisle seat – “Are you willing, if something untoward seems to be occurring, to assist?” Absolutely.
I think in many respects we need to remember. We can’t let our guard down. We need to assure that the Americans who are serving and protecting and volunteering and doing their duty have our support and keep on doing it. Time has passed, but the war hasn’t.
Q: There are all these conspiracy theories that surround 9/11, and one of them is that United 93 was shot down by the military. Does that make you guys angry? Do you ignore it?
Felt: I think there are always going to be conspiracy theories. It has conclusively been proven that it’s not the case, but it doesn’t bother me at all. I just ignore them. I think it’s important to listen to them the first time, to see if there’s any credibility, but then when you realize that there’s not, there’s a lot more to worry about.
Mr. Beamer: What was kind of rekindled in seeing the movie was that we did not have the time to scramble jets and have an American shoot the jet out of the sky before it reached the Capitol. That certainly was a scenario that could have played out between Shanksville, Pennsylvania and the end of the Mall in DC. I also can recall among the horrible images of 9/11 the images of our enemies dancing and celebrating in the streets. I will not forget those. Can you imagine how much more they would have been dancing if they had been able to say we had caused the Americans to be shooting themselves? Plus the military man who would had to do that… It’s not just a blessing that the passengers and crew on Flight 93 were able to pull off the counterattack, it’s a blessing that they were able to pull it off in a timely way, before a more horrific outcome.
Q: In New York and other cities the film has proved to be controversial, with some people greeting the trailer with cries of “Too soon.” Do you think it’s too soon? Or too late?
Felt: My heart goes out to the families in New York City who lost loved ones, and to the families in Washington who lost loved ones in the Pentagon. I can only imagine what they went through, seeing the trailer. But that being said, I don’t think it’s too early for this film to be out. I know some have been shouting “Too soon,” and it’s their right to express their opinion, but it’s also my right to express my opinion, and I don’t think it’s too soon. It’s never too soon to remember the horrific day. It’s never too soon to remind people of the evil we have to face out there on a daily basis to maintain our way of life. I think this movie can be very instructive to the American people, as well as people around the world – not only in what happened that day, but in the potential of what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Mrs. Beamer: As to whether or not it’s too soon? I don’t think it’s too soon. But I understand how the people in New York or the Pentagon would feel. It’s a rough movie to watch. It really is a rough movie to watch. But it’s something I think has to be done now. I think the history is now. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the people who are involved are living now and can have input into this movie. In twenty years it’s going to be something they read in a book. This needs to be portrayed now. Whether or not people choose to see it, that’s their choice.
Q: Is the release of this film something that helps you in getting to a place of peace?
Mrs. Beamer: I don’t think the movie had anything to do with whether or not I feel at peace. The thing that makes me feel at peace is that we’re Christians. I believe there is an afterlife, and I know that Todd is in heaven. I know where he is, and that brings me peace, and that keeps my joy going. What makes me sad is to see… David, Drew and Morgan without their dad. That’s what’s really hard. But as for peace for Todd, he’s OK.
Q: Do you feel that there are people out there who are forgetting this? Do you think it’s your responsibility to keep the focus on what this day means?
Mr. Beamer: As I said before, I think there are two great objectives this film serves – to tell the truth of that day and to serve as a reminder about the circumstances we’re still in. The war, the threats, the enemy. Whether or not there are many people who are forgetting, I don’t know. But I do know that it’s painful to remember, and it’s more comfortable to put it out of your mind, to not think about the war, to not think about the event, to not think about what they might be planning next. To compartmentalize it somewhere else. We can’t, as a free peoples, afford to do that because the consequences are unthinkable. We grieve every time we hear that another American has been killed in action, because we know what it’s like to get that kind of news. But we must persevere, because the enemy does not have surrender in his lexicon. It’s not in his dictionary. And we must not have retreat in ours, because there’s nowhere to retreat to. Their goal and mission is world dominance with their way of life – it’s their way or no way. Our Creator gave us a free will, and we’re blessed to be able to exercise that. To be religious or not, to decide what our value system is, to say what we want to say. There’s no price too high to pay to keep the freedom we’ve got. If the project reminds people that that’s a reality, then that’s a good goal to serve.
Felt: I think this movie will provide one format in which people will remember what happened. I think Universal’s efforts to commit ten percent of their gross of the first three days of release in this country to a national Flight 93 memorial speaks to their commitment to perpetuate the memory of our loved ones. The families of Flight 93 are currently working with the National Parks Service and the federal advisory commission that was created by Congress back in September of 2002 to create a national memorial. Universal’s contributions to that memorial as well as the contributions of thousands of Americans have already put us on the road to the creation of this memorial, where people will forever be able to go and contemplate that day, the effects that day had on our nation and around the world. This is a message we don’t want to fade away, and this gets that message right out there so we never forget what happened to our loved ones.
Mr. Beamer: There’s one aspect of the whole project that I’ve thought about and that people are asking about fairly bluntly in this way: “Hey, how do you feel about the heroic actions of your family members being exploited for profit?” Well, how I feel about capitalism and how I feel about this project sort of goes like this – I believe it’s a story that needed to be told. I believe Paul Greengrass and Universal have done a great job doing it. They have also, as Gordon said, offered a piece of the gross to a worthwhile project, toward the memorial. And quite frankly, I hope the movie generates tremendous returns and perhaps coming out of this other producers can see that if we make quality product telling the right kinds of stories it’s also a good business venture. What upsets me more are some projects that are really bad, in many, many ways that by the way generate enormous profits.
Q: Given your views regarding the enemy, does it bother you that the government supported both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in the past?
Mr. Beamer: Of course. But nobody’s perfect. We make mistakes. Those were bad ideas.
Q: You don’t question perhaps what the government might be doing now, getting in bed with someone like Saudi Arabia?
Mr. Beamer: I don’t know what the government’s doing right now. This I know: every American’s responsibility to think about exercising our rights in our representative government by voting the best that we can to support our principals, not necessarily our politics or whether or not our grandfather was a die-hard Democrat. It is our responsibility to show up to the best of our ability and exercise those rights.