NEW YORK - The choice of the Hugh Grant comedy "About a Boy" to open the first Tribeca Film Festival in 2002 was a conscious attempt to turn away from the horrors of Sept. 11, the impetus for the festival, and give people a reason to laugh again, if only for one night.
Now in its fifth year, Tribeca faces the terrorist attacks head-on with the world premiere of "United 93," an intensely visceral drama about one of the four planes that crashed that day after passengers tried to tackle their hijackers.
The film from writer-director Paul Greengrass, which recounts the flight and culminates with the jet nose-diving into a Pennsylvania field, will play on opening night Tuesday before appearing in theaters nationwide Friday. Members of the passengers' families are expected to sit in the audience alongside others who lost loved ones during the attacks.
"'(United) 93,' if it was not opening the festival, it would seem strange," said Robert De Niro, who co-founded the festival with his Tribeca Films producing partner, Jane Rosenthal, to spark economic recovery in the neighborhood where he lives and works.
"You can't not be touched by it, honestly," De Niro said at a news conference Monday. "It's direct, simple. It's important to see because it's kind of a playback of what happened."
Greengrass told The Associated Press during an interview about the movie: "I think it's the most appropriate place for the film to play first. I'll use words that I hope don't sound empty. They're not empty. But it's an honor and a privilege to bring this film there. It's daunting and it's humbling, but I know in my heart we all did our best to honor this subject."
While there are 273 other films playing at Tribeca over the next two weeks - including the world premiere of "Mission: Impossible III," which will bring Tom Cruise to New York for a six-hour, crosstown adventure to promote the summer blockbuster - a great deal of emotion and attention understandably have been devoted to "United 93."
It's a story that's intrinsically tied to this city's story, and therefore to this festival, which has drawn more than 1 million visitors to lower Manhattan since its inception.
"On a very deeply personal level, I was anxious about it," Rosenthal told the AP in an interview at her office, just a few blocks north of where the twin towers stood.
"I was anxious about seeing it for all those reasons that everybody else in the world is anxious about seeing it: Do you want to go to that place emotionally to see this movie? And it's an amazing picture that, as you're sitting there, you can't leave it. You have to stay with it," she continued. "And it's not exploitive. It's a very powerful picture. It is oddly not a violent picture. There are some images there that we have been anesthetized with by the media - we've seen these pictures before - but somehow it's all the more powerful because it's up on a giant screen."
Rosenthal said that after putting the first festival together in 120 days, "I never in a million years believed that I was actually going to have to do a second."
"When you look at the political landscape and what's happened to us over a five-year period, and you sort of reflect on that and reflect on why we started, the events that have occurred throughout the world, it really does give you pause for thought that a lot has happened and not much has happened.
"In a lot of ways it feels like the blink of an eye," she said. But she added: "If you look at it from a downtown-centric perspective, 7 World Trade (Center) will finally be open, but there's still very much a hole in the ground. The rebuilding has begun but there's been a lot of arguing. And Osama bin Laden is still at large, last I checked."
In that vein, several films playing at Tribeca are about New York and the attacks, including "The Saint of 9/11" and "The Heart of Steel." Others are about the war in Iraq, including the "The War Tapes" and "The Blood of My Brother."
Executive director Peter Scarlet received an all-time high of 4,100 entries, but also searched worldwide for the 174 features and 100 shorts on the schedule. Forty different countries are represented.
"I'm looking for perspectives all over the world that we don't get," he said. "It doesn't matter what the flag is over them."
The increasing interest each year in Tribeca - from filmmakers, industry people and film lovers - is "just a reflection, and it's sometimes kind of terrifying, that we seem to have a growing reputation. People are excited about what's happening here. We're doing something right," Scarlet said. "We're a big festival in a big town. There's an enormously diverse population here."
Among the other events scheduled to satisfy all those interests:
- The Tribeca Talks series, featuring Morgan Freeman, T Bone Burnett, Harold Ramis and "The O.C." creator Josh Schwartz.
- The Tribeca/ASCAP Music Lounge, with performances from artists including Elvis Costello, John Mayer, Nellie McKay and Rodney Crowell.
- The Tribeca Family Festival, featuring such films as "RV," "Keeping Up With the Steins" and a remake of "Lassie," as well as a daylong street fair.
And of course there's Cruise, the new daddy, who will traipse across Manhattan by helicopter, speedboat, sports car and subway before landing at the "M:i:III" premiere at the historic Ziegfeld Theater on May 3.
"You know, we're Tribeca. We like to do things a little differently," Rosenthal said. "We joke here that the film festival has been mission impossible, and we've managed to do it."
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