By Karen D’Souza Contra Costa Times
Mark Bingham became an American hero on September 11, 2001. One of the brave souls who stormed the cockpit of United Flight 93, the Los Gatos man helped save countless lives by sacrificing his own.
Now, 13 years later, his story has its homecoming when the documentary The Rugby Player, which traces Bingham’s life from his rowdy frat boy days at UC Berkeley to his harrowing final moments, arrives at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose.
New York-based filmmaker Scott Gracheff pays tribute to Bingham by remembering him not just as a hero but as an athlete, a son and a gay man who always stood his ground. “Gracheff did an amazing job of capturing this person, who we all could be, and all aspire to be,” said Mike Rabehl, director of programming for Cinequest, the South Bay’s major film festival. “Because it’s not a film about the tragedy he became part of but about his spirit as a person.”
Indeed, the compelling 80-minute film, which screens Thursday, Saturday and March 15, etches Bingham’s personality in heartbreaking detail — and shatters stereotypes along the way.
“Throughout history, there have been heroes who were gay, it’s just that we didn’t know they were gay,” said Gracheff, who has been working on the documentary for a dozen years. He screened an early version of the film, then titled With You, at Frameline, the San Francisco LGBT film festival, in 2011. The film gets its mainstream festival premiere at Cinequest.
“Our hope is that people who come into this film with preconceived notions about what it means to be a gay man will walk away understanding that we are all the same and that we all deserve the same rights,” Gracheff said.
Standing up for what’s right has become a guiding principle for Bingham’s mother, Alice Hoagland, who still lives in Los Gatos. In the years since the death of her only child, she has become the keeper of his legacy and a champion of equal rights.
“I imagine I will be fighting for the rest of my life,” said the warm and funny 64-year-old. “Until my dying day I will be fighting for the causes that have sprung from the smoking wreckage of Mark’s death.”
The irony of a national hero being relegated to second-class citizen is not lost on Gracheff.
“Mark Bingham led a charge against the terrorists on one of the darkest days in this country’s history and yet there are still many states in which he would not be allowed to marry, and that’s an outrage,” Gracheff said. “What more do you have to do to prove that you are a good American?”
Certainly Bingham’s life was shot through with poignancy. His parents divorced when he was small, leaving his mother to scrape by. Mother and son spent time living out of the back of their car near Monterey. Mark learned to fish to put food on the table. He also learned to make the best of any situation.
“Mark didn’t waste time; he knew you have to live each day,” Gracheff said, “because it can be snatched away from you at any moment.”
Things got better for the single mom when she became a United flight attendant, a career she loved until the day when air travel would forever become linked with terrorism in her mind. Mark, meanwhile, transformed from a chubby little boy to a brawny kid with guts. He became known as a gregarious fellow who faced down bullies and stood up for his classmates. When he found rugby, he found his calling.
“For years Mark played the No. 8 position, the guy who holds the team together,” Hoagland recalled with pride. “That’s who Mark was.”
After graduation from Los Gatos High School, Bingham won an athletic scholarship to Cal. A burly guy who stood a towering 6 feet, 4 inches, he quickly established himself as an aggressive player with a flair for pranks and an unstoppable flying tackle. He once used that move on the Stanford Tree mascot during a game. The authorities didn’t share his sense of humor. In fact, that incident got Bingham fingerprinted, which is how his remains were identified at that field in Shanksville, Pa., where he met his end.
“It was important to us to show that Mark was not a cliché, that he was not defined by his sexuality,” Gracheff said. “He loved heavy metal, he loved sports and he was also an openly gay man.”
Bingham, who ran a San Francisco public relations firm, always had the courage of his convictions. The president of the Chi Psi house at Cal, he came out to his fraternity brothers at a huge graduation party.
He helped found the San Francisco Fog, a gay rugby team. He ran with the bulls in Pamplona. He may have only been 31 when he died, but he already had a reputation for never shrinking from a fight.
“There’s a lot of blood let on the rugby field. You learn to be fearless and you learn to think on your feet despite the roar of the fray,” said Hoagland, who has listened to the Flight 93 cockpit recording so many times she has every moment memorized. “That’s a wisdom he needed to stand up against the hijackers and charge that cockpit. That small band of passengers (which also included Tom Burnett of San Ramon and Todd Beamer of Los Gatos) gave their lives to spare us the sight of the Capitol dome in flames.”
Hoagland is thrilled the documentary will be screened in her backyard, where Mark’s childhood friends and teachers will have a chance to see it. But she also admits to being torn apart while watching it, especially the video that Mark shot of himself over the years. Sometimes it’s as if he is narrating his own eulogy, which lends the film a haunting quality.
“I’m very grateful to be able to spend some time in his presence and hear his voice again but it is still very hard to watch,” she said. “I cry every time.”