Sebastopol’s Walt Bodley said he knew right away which character in the new film “United 93” was meant to be his cherished 20-year-old niece, Deora.
It “was a little eerie,” he said, to see her there represented on the screen, to know her fate in a Pennsylvania field and to watch the unfolding violence that would lead to hers and 43 other deaths 4 1/2 years ago.
His wife’s response to the gut-wrenching terror took on physical dimensions — the result, she said, of being unprepared “to actually see” in real time the national tragedy that for her and so many others was deeply personal.
“I was nauseous, and I was numb, and my sister-in-law was with us, and she could barely stand up,” Sandra Bodley said. “And I thought I was going to throw up.”
They said there was never any question they would see the film about Flight 93, shown to them in a special screening. It’s a decision moviegoers now face with the film’s release this weekend after months of controversy about whether it is too soon to see a film about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist hijacking.
Jack Grandcolas of San Rafael, who lost his 38-year-old wife, Lauren, that day, along with the child she’d been carrying for three months, said the events of that day haven’t been out of the news since.
And while he turned down an opportunity to hear the “black box” recording of the last 30 minutes onboard with other passengers’ families, he already has seen “United 93” twice — at the Bay Area family screening three weeks ago and Tuesday night when it opened the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
“None of it’s easy,” Grandcolas said Thursday upon his return to the Bay Area. But the majority of family members at the New York screening “felt relieved, comfortable,” he said.
Critics are nearly universal in their sense that the movie presents a balanced, respectful and unsensational approach to the flight whose 40 passengers and crew members are believed to have united against the hijackers, obstructing their mission and preventing further deaths.
Those who boarded the San Francisco-bound jet in Newark were delayed on the runway, and so learned while airborne that three jets had been flown into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In the days, months and years since, they’ve become national heroes, inspiring one of the film’s promotional slogans — “On the day we faced fear, we also found courage.”
That message also resonates with family members who have banded together in a tight support group, meeting periodically and collaborating on talking points for the film’s producers to ensure their voices are heard.
Eureka biology professor Diqui LaPenta, whose partner, wildlife biologist Richard Guadagno, died on Flight 93, said it was important that the hijackers be depicted as individuals, rather than “the face of Islam.”
LaPenta, who has not seen the movie, praised Universal Studios’ offer to donate 10 percent of the first three days’ box office to the Flight 93 Memorial Project. But she fears the movie will be sensationalized.
“It’s about a terrorist act, and whether it’s real or fictional, that’s going to be a lot of explosions, and a lot of special effects, and all of those things that would be a part of it.”
Grandcolas and others who have seen it credited Universal Studios and, particularly, British writer-director Paul Greengrass, whose staff interviewed loved ones for details about the characters in his movie and meticulously researched available documentation about the flight.
The film was made in documentary style and cast with little-known actors who were assigned individual characters to study. The actors improvised some actions based on available documents, phone calls made from the plane and information provided by family members.
Although most of the passengers go unnamed, family members said they were recognizable to those who knew them.
Grandcolas said he had numerous conversations with actress Kate Jennings Grant, who played his wife.
In the film, she portrays Lauren Grandcolas using her skills as an emergency medical technician to help an injured passenger — actions in keeping with her nature, he said, but not documented.
Grandcolas described Greengrass, who was to fly to the Bay Area to promote the film Thursday night, as “very honest and respectful.”
“Universal has been extremely sensitive about the project, so his attempt to create an enlightening, provocative and honorable tribute to the events of that day, I think he hits on all three levels,” Grandcolas said.
Sandra Bodley said she appreciated that the hijackers weren’t demonized and described a moment in which the film shows them praying to Allah in the cockpit, while passengers gathered in the tail are reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
But both she and her husband took issue with a line of text that closed the film in its original cut identifying the Flight 93 passengers as the first warriors in the War on Terror — a line they say since has been removed.
Bodley said she was the first to speak when Greengrass asked the April 9 audience its reaction to the film:
“I just blurted out that it was awful, just awful,” she said. “I said I had just relived my niece’s death, and it was just horrific. And I said, `What’s the point? What do you want from this film?”’
That emotional response is now tempered by her belief that Greengrass set out to make a factual account of Flight 93.
She said her main concern is whether the movie will provoke a reaction aimed toward vengeance and violence instead of soul searching about the causes of terrorism.
“We take great exception to casting our loved ones as warriors,” Bodley said. “These were people who had enough information to know what was going on — that this was a suicide mission — and what they were trying to do was save their lives so they could get back to loved ones.”
Grandcolas said the very nature of the story — regular people recognizing their fate, making a plan and taking action even as the government and Defense Department hesitated — makes the film worthwhile.
“The film is a story that has inspiration to it,” he said. “It’s a powerful remake of a very tragic day, but it also offers a silver lining to a gray cloud of that day, for which we’re grateful.”