It's time for me to offer an apology to Richard A. Serrano of the Los Angeles Times. The other day I wondered if he had avoided, on purpose, the religious actions and statements in the testimony and evidence at the Alexandria, Va., trial of the smiling terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui. I mentioned this while discussing the emotional landmines facing the creators of the new movie United 93. Well, in his follow-up report, Serrano had to deal with the actual contents of the 31-minute cockpit tape from that doomed flight, and he did not flinch. It is hard to know what part of this agonizing story to quote and, for me, it was by far the best MSM report I saw on that stage of the trial (feel free to cite others in the comments section). For starters, there is the lead:
The government completed its case against Zacarias Moussaoui on Wednesday with its single most chilling piece of evidence -- a tape from the cockpit of Flight 93 that recorded the terrorists overwhelming the pilots on Sept. 11, 2001, slashing their throats and praising Allah before crashing the jet into a Pennsylvania field.
Does reading that make you uncomfortable? Here is how the Wall Street Journal put it in a short editorial-page feature on the contents of that tape:
We wonder how many Americans got the same eerie chill that we did reading the partial transcript yesterday of the final 31 minutes of United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. Especially in this holy season of Easter and Passover, it was disturbing to read the hijackers swear fanatic allegiance to another great religion as they squeezed the life out of pleading flight attendants and pointed the jet down to smash in a Pennsylvania field.
Now, transfer that feeling to dark theaters from coast to coast, with the action unfolding -- prayer by prayer, box-cutter slash by box-cutter slash -- on giant screens with Surround Sound.
Try to imagine how this movie will make moderate Muslims feel. But imagine how the critics of the Islamists -- critics who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, secular or whatever -- will feel if the gripping religious details of the terrorists' lives and beliefs are softened or edited. Now turn that around and imagine how people on both sides of the divide will feel about depictions of the words and actions of the passengers who rebelled. There are highly detailed tapes and testimonies to deal with, in the age of cell phones and home answering machines.
How can the moviemakers walk that tightrope? A reporter like Serrano best serves his readers by getting out of the way and letting the voices speak. Can Hollywood executives do the same thing? The bottom line: Will the Muslim street cheer or jeer this movie? What about the audience that turned out for The Passion of the Christ?
Or will everyone just stay home?
How will journalists and ticket-buyers respond to this?
An air-traffic controller interjects from somewhere on the ground, obviously confused over what he is hearing. "We just -- we didn't get it clear," he says. "Is that United 93 calling?"
In Arabic comes this answer: "Jassim."
"In the name of Allah, the most merciful, the most compassionate."
The terrorists, talking with each other in Arabic, consider bringing a pilot who might still be alive back into the cockpit to talk to ground control. It now appears the hijackers too are growing confused, and worried about the passengers. "In the name of Allah," shouts one, "I bear witness that there is no other [G]od but Allah."
There is much more. So far, only people from Time -- in this age of cross-media promotional work -- have seen the movie. An online review notes, mentioning the moviegoers who urged theaters to stop showing the United 93 trailer:
Perhaps those who saw the trailer didn't realize that this was the one flight, of the four hijacked that day, with an inspiring ending. This was the one on which the good guys, following passenger Todd Beamer's John Wayne-like invocation, "Let's roll," foiled the bad guys. The saga of this flight makes for, in 9/11 terms, a feel-good movie. Just as important, United 93, at which Time was given an exclusive first look, is a good movie -- taut and implacable -- that honors the deeds of the passengers while being fair, if anyone cares, to the hijackers' jihad bravado. (At one point the passengers are heard murmuring the Lord's Prayer while the hijackers whisper their prayers to Allah.) If this is a horror movie, it is an edifying one, a history lesson with the pulse of a world-on-the-line suspense film.
If anyone cares? You have to be joking, this soon after the cartoon crisis. All kinds of people are going to care, whether they pay money to see the movie or not.