Inside the ''United 93'' premiere at Tribeca: Observations on the dramatic audience reaction to Paul Greengrass' 9/11 film
Credit: United 93: Jonathan Olley

To say that the world premiere of Universal’s United 93 at the Tribeca Film Festival was awkward and uncomfortable would be a colossal understatment. The two of us have always operated under the assumption that film festivals were supposed to be fun and loose, not full of tears and grief.

But United 93 is not fun. It’s not loose. The remarkably detailed, almost real-time re-creation of the morning of Sept. 11 can’t help but invoke tears and grief. There was a heaviness surrounding it unlike any other movie we can recall.

Typically at film fests, red-carpet premieres overflow with star wattage — actresses preening in glitzy gowns for the cameras. This one was a somber circus. Out in the rain stood a small contingent of 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Inside, an odd mix of dark business attire, a basket of individual Kleenex packets, and, the most depressing thing of all, free stale popcorn. Even the celebrities were low-key. Add together the combined fame quotients of Tom Selleck, Tony Bennett, and Frank Langella and you still fall far short of Nicole Kidman, who opened last year’s fest with The Interpreter.

Instead, the night’s real ”stars” were the dozens of Flight 93 famiies brave enough to come out and sit through the film’s first public screening. They filled the balcony of the stately Ziegfeld Theater, were singled out by Robert De Niro and director Paul Greengrass, and received a massive standing ovation before the movie.

Then it started.

Everyone there knew what would happen, even when it was going to happen, but that did nothing to diffuse the raw tension and emotion in the room. Make no mistake: Every screening of this movie across America will wear its audience out. From where we were sitting, we heard gasps when the second plane hit the World Trade Center, we saw audience members shielding their eyes during the hijacking, and we did not miss, could not avoid (no one could) the heartbreakingly heaving sobs coming from family members at film’s end. They were wailing.

We walked out shellshocked. First time in a very long time that’s happened.

Crowd reaction was uniformly positive. People were probably too drained to say anything bad. Julia Stiles walked out and looked very, very pale. Steve Buscemi and Richard Schiff huddled in the corner, discussing the film in hushed tones. A ”humbled” Paul Greengrass stood around embracing family members. Brushing aside the notion that the film comes too soon, he said, ”Remembering isn’t easy. It’s painful. But it can be inspiring and it can lead to wisdom.”

Come this weekend, we’ll see whether America agrees.