Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

United 93

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 2, 2006

Directed and written by Paul Greengrass/Universal Pictures – Working Title

So, yeah, it’s a movie about 9/11. Deal with it.

Ever since this film was announced, people have been talking shit about it. One group says it’s “exploitation”, another says it’s “pro-Bush propaganda”. Others simply believe it’s “too soon” for a film about a recent tragedy to be made.

Here’s what I think about al that: if you’re in any one of those aforementioned groups, just don’t go see the movie. No, seriously, don’t fucking go. Because your mind is already made up, and nothing you see on that screen will change it.

People are acting like United 93 is the first time Hollywood has ever broached the subject of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. This is, of course, not true. There was an independent film called The Guys starring Sigourney Weaver, which was actually based on a play (still haven’t seen the film, though I hear it’s pretty good). Not to mention Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour, which strangely used post-9/11 New York as a backdrop for the personal struggle of a drug dealer about to go to jail. Then of course there’s the TV show Rescue Me, in which a group of New York firefighters deal with the psychological damage inflicted by that day (that’s not the only story point, but it’s in there and is frequently referenced). So it’s not as if the subject has never been raised in the entertainment world. This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last.

It’s not even the first time the story of Flight 93 has been told on screen. Both A&E and the Discovery Channel did made-for-cable docudramas about this very same event. I recently watched the A&E version (after seeing the feature) and thought it wasn’t bad, albeit very TV-movie in style. It’s worth seeing mainly to note the differences in the telling of the story, which is obviously based on both research and speculation (in the A&E version, for example, the terrorists wear bright red headbands, which are nowhere to be found in the feature film). There are some genuinely moving moments in it (how could there not be?), but I wouldn’t call it definitive.

I guess I just don’t get why all the complaining is starting now. If you’re going to accuse Hollywood of “cashing in” on a real-life tragedy, fine, but why not do it from the beginning? Why bitch about it when it’s already too late?

Never mind that virtually all of the family members of the doomed passengers and crew cooperated with the filmmakers and support the release of the film. A lot of people seem to hate the film, sight unseen, simply because of how it affects them. They don’t want to live through the experience of Sept. 11, 2001 all over again.

But here’s the thing; as United 93 clearly shows, unless you were on the plane, in a control tower or had a relative call you from the plane before the crash, you didn’t live through the story of Flight 93. Sitting at home watching the Twin Towers fall on CNN isn’t the same thing, especially since this isn’t specifically the story of the World Trade Center attacks. We didn’t watch Flight 93 happen on television. At the risk of sounding insensitive, if you weren’t there…you weren’t there.

It’s to his credit that writer-director Greengrass puts us right there in the chaotic center of it all. While he’s best known here for directing The Bourne Supremacy, Greengrass comes from a documentary background, making him the perfect choice for a film based on factual events. His excellent film Bloody Sunday, a dramatic re-creation of a 1972 crowd shooting by the Irish police, proves the template for United 93. In both films, rather than over-dramatize the events for “dramatic effect” as Hollywood so often does, Greengrass simply shows us what happened and lets us make up our own minds. If truth is stranger than fiction, it’s also infinitely more disturbing.

It’s because of this aesthetic that United 93 is a harrowing, nerve-wracking experience. Yes, we know going in exactly what will happen to these people. Yet that somehow makes it even more frightening than it would if this were a piece of fiction (which is often equally predictable). Knowing that they are doomed actually makes us care about them more, not less – we know they are in their final hours of life, stuck on a death ride from which they will not escape. So their words and actions matter the most, in the same way that a person’s final words are remembered more than any of their others.

What’s more, we care so much about them that we don’t want them to die, in spite of the fact that we know they will. That’s the killer of this movie, the thing that bites down the hardest. We know they’re fucked – but we want them to survive regardless. The movie makes us want the passengers to take over the plane and land it safely. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen in the movies? You can’t help but root for them to have their happy ending; the one you know isn’t going to come. But this isn’t a ‘70’s disaster film, nor is there a Chuck Norris or a Steven Seagal on board to save the day. That’s not real life, and that’s not this movie.

Greengrass is wise enough to show the events and characters matter-of-factly, without much embellishment. We don’t know much about these people, they’re never given a typical Hollywood backstory or character arc. We only know who they were on that plane, and what they did on that day. The same goes for the FAA workers in the control towers, many of whom are played by the actual people. We watch in frustration as they attempt futilely to communicate with the government, scramble to form a plan, and simply try to figure out what the hell’s going on. No one was prepared for this. How could they be? Such an attack wasn’t even conceived of before that day. It’s scary to think that the people in charge of our safety were just as clueless as the rest of us, but that’s exactly the case. They were caught off guard, looking for direction and instruction where there was none to be found.

As far as the so-called “political content” goes, I think there really isn’t any. Of course people will read into it whatever they want, but the film itself is really admirably neutral. It’s not about right or wrong, good or evil, Christians vs. Muslims. It’s about people stuck in a really fucked-up situation who do what they feel they have to do. Even the terrorists think that what they are doing is right. I don’t agree, but the movie doesn’t pass judgment on them (as much as they probably deserve). They simply are who they are, and they do what terrorists do. No backstory, no speeches about how the US military blew up their neighbor’s dog or all Americans are infidels for eating Cheetos and watching porn. We’ve heard it all before in countless other movies, and frankly, nobody gives a shit. Their justifications and rationales are their own. The movie doesn’t try to make us understand their motivations – yet they still come off as human beings who are just as fucked as everyone else on the plane.

But the revolt of the passengers isn’t political. There are no debates about the superiority of America, whether or not the terrorists are justified in their actions, or even any discussion of the merits of the current President. That shit all came later. No, these people did what they did because they were scared shitless. They knew that they were most likely going to die, but they had to try. They had to do something. They had to do whatever they could do to stop this from happening. And they succeeded, at least in keeping the plane from crashing into the Capitol Building. They were heroic in that effort. But it’s not a political thing, and I certainly don’t think it’s exclusively American. I think people from just about any civilized country, knowing what they knew from the little information they had, would try to do the same thing. Why didn’t the passengers from the other planes do it? They most likely didn’t have the information that those on Flight 93 did. You have to remember, the people on the other planes probably thought they would be ransomed (as the 93 passengers originally thought), and had no idea what was actually going to take place. Flight 93 was the last of the four planes to crash, and they found out what happened to the others. Can you honestly say that people from England or Australia or Switzerland or Poland wouldn’t do the same thing with that knowledge? To try to save many lives, and possibly even their own? Of course they would. This story just happens to be about Americans, because that’s what they were. But this idea that only Americans would have tried to save themselves and others is simply jingoistic bullshit. Let’s not kid ourselves.

As far as the film being “pro-Bush propaganda” though, I think that’s completely insane. This isn’t the story of the “war on terror” – if it was, it would no doubt document the innumerable fuck-ups the Bush administration has made along the way. It wouldn’t be an honest film if it didn’t. But this is the story of what happened to one group of people on one particular plane. That’s all. I’m sure some conservatives will (and probably already have) find justification for their misguided beliefs here. But one could just as easily go the other way.

I’m an avowed liberal, and I think these people should be avenged. I think they deserve to be avenged. That’s why I find it absolutely obscene that Osama bin Laden is still walking around a free man, while we’re stuck fucking around in a country that all evidence shows had nothing to do with 9/11, just to protect our oil interests. I also find it obscene that Bush and his cronies have used the tragedy to further their own agenda, by instilling fear and paranoia in the uninformed and exploiting the memory of the victims (who, I guarantee you, they couldn’t give two shits about). Never mind the insanity of our government having helped the Taliban take over the Afghani government in the first place. We paid the price for that mistake on 9/11, and you’ll never hear the elder Bush apologize for it. Let’s not forget that the CIA warned Bush Jr. of a possible terrorist attack in a report, which he chose to ignore, leading us to be completely unprepared when it did happen. That’s not my opinion or “liberal politics” – that’s all documented fact.

Again, none of that is in the film – that’s not what the movie is about. But while watching it, and afterwards, I grieved for the people on that plane, just as we all grieved for all of the victims on that day. And it makes me angry that we’ve done nothing about it, except to take over an uninvolved country based on a lie. Of course, anyone with common sense knows that you can’t get rid of all the terrorists in the world – if you kill or imprison one, a dozen more pop up to take his place. But what we can do is be more prepared, become more knowledgeable, learn from it to make sure it will never happen again. So far, at least, our government has not done that, which is also obscene (I know I keep using that word, but no other word could possibly fit). All they’ve succeeded in doing is searching old ladies at the airport and driving gas prices to insane heights. Thanks a lot, guys.

Yes, United 93 is a reminder of a terrible day in our history, and a reminder of all the mistakes that have been made in its name. But it’s much more than that. People ask, “Why do we need a movie like this? Why now?” My answer is, we need it because we can learn from it. We can learn from the humanity of the passengers, average people who stood up and faced death with courage. We can learn from the tears of the surviving family members, who were also brave in their own way by saying goodbye to their loved ones far too early. We can also learn from the frustration of the people in the control towers, who faced a bureaucratic clusterfuck of mind-boggling proportions, and did the best they could.

The truth is, 9/11 should never have happened. Perhaps if we choose to learn from a film like United 93, such a horrible thing will never happen to us again.

**** 5/02/06

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