Hollywood confronts 9/11. We analyze whether audiences are ready for two new films and a TV miniseries on the tragic events of that day

Forty people on board a United Airlines 757 en route from Newark to San Francisco make a terrifying discovery: The plane has been hijacked by four men and is now heading for Washington, D.C. In the face of death, they band together to overtake the hijackers and divert the jet, which crashes into a Pennsylvania field. Who are these brave individuals? They are the heroes of Flight 93, a $15 million drama from Universal that is one of three new 9/11-themed projects — two major-studio films and an ABC miniseries — already stirring up controversy.

Coming almost four years after the attacks, these new projects dare to do on a mainstream level what none has done before, and what Steven Spielberg vowed he would never attempt: dramatize the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which the world experienced with memory-searing immediacy on live television. With so many questions from that day unanswered, isn’t there a risk that these dramatic retellings could veer into mythmaking?

Due to start shooting this year with British director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy), Universal’s feature will unfold in real time, re-creating the plane’s 90 minutes aloft. Paramount is planning an October start for its as-yet-untitled Oliver Stone drama starring Nicolas Cage and Crash‘s Michael Peña as John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, the Port Authority officers who were rescued from the Ground Zero rubble after more than 15 hours. And ABC is already six weeks into filming an ambitious miniseries based on The 9/11 Commission Report. Set to air next spring, it stars Harvey Keitel and Patricia Heaton and uses Sept. 11 scenes as bookends for a decade’s worth of events leading up to the fateful day. (NBC shelved its own 9/11 miniseries.) Also on the horizon: Columbia’s take on the best-seller 102 Minutes, and Flight 93 projects on Discovery Channel and A&E.

Why is Hollywood suddenly willing to address 9/11 directly? Timing, for one thing. Both Universal and Paramount are considering 2006 releases to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the attacks. ”As the world approaches [that] anniversary,” says a Universal spokesperson, ”we think it is legitimate, and even necessary, for today’s leading filmmakers to…investigate the events of that epochal day.” As ABC sees it, the public is owed an explanation. ”We have to tell people what happened,” says the network’s senior VP of movies and miniseries, Quinn Taylor. ”We have to talk about how we got to that moment. I think people are ready to grapple with [9/11] in a way that should at least ask why.”

But how ready is the public? Most respondents to an EW.com poll consider the projects exploitative. When Paramount announced Stone as director of its movie in July, furious debates erupted on the Internet, with many bloggers accusing the studio of capitalizing on tragedy, and others expressing fear that the famously political filmmaker would turn McLoughlin and Jimeno’s story into JFK-style conspiracy theory.