08 May 2006

current cinema: United 93

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starring: Lewis Alsamari, J.J. Johnson, Trish Gates, and David Alan Basche
written and directed by: Paul Greengrass
R, 111 min, 2006, USA/UK


In the days immediately surrounding the tragedy of September 11, the question was often broached as to how long Hollywood would wait before disgracing the memory of the event with a big-budget action movie full of explosions and larger-than-life American heroes battling shifty-eyed Arabs in the skies above New York City. Five years? Ten? Twenty? The American public is understandably wary of any film treatment of that fateful day, as it's all too easy to picture a Michael Bay project starring Harrison Ford and Will Smith, sort of Air Force One (1997) meets Independence Day (1996).

When that film does come (and rest assured, in due time it will), hopefully it'll receive the same scrutiny United 93 currently faces, although I suspect very little of it has to do with the actual content of the film and is more a reaction to the fact that this is the first of the 9/11 movies[1]. It'll be interesting to see how the discussion of the film evolves as more and more people realize just what sort of film it actually is. The main question seems to hinge around an assumption that not enough time has passed since September 11, that the country is not yet ready for this film, regardless of content. But the beautiful thing about this, the digital age, is that the popularity of DVD allows people to view films such as this when they themselves are ready, whereas in days past such flexibility did not exist. This allows for many more options for filmmakers looking for ways to tell the stories that need to be told. Because if art, to a degree, functions as a society's soul, then films such as United 93 are vital to the grieving process of a country coming to terms with a horrific tragedy. They serve as a means of therapy, allowing us to move beyond it and begin the process of getting on with our lives. But, at the same time as a constant reminder of what has transpired. A celluloid memorial, if you will.

Little of the above has much to do with the quality of the film itself, but is an important factor when considering the climate in which the film exists. For it is nigh unto impossible to view the film objectively apart from real life events, so there's no point in discussing it without mentioning its larger role in society. At the same time, none of that larger context can turn a bad film into a good one, regardless of how "important" it may be. Thankfully, Paul Greengrass' United 93 needs no such justification, as it is a masterpiece in every way imaginable, a stunning and gut-wrenching film that makes a case for being the best American film of the decade and the most powerful piece of cinema since Schindler's List (1993). The comparison is a convenient one both thematically and in terms of quality, the major difference being the amount of time between the event and the film honoring it.

The story of the passengers of United 93 is a unique one in world history when you consider that in the middle of this massive event that has been dissected in every way imaginable by a media desperate for answers, there exists this small pocket of mystery into which we can only glimpse. Upon learning that their hijacking was part of a larger plot and that the plane was not going to land safely, that they were in fact doomed, they took the opportunity to call their families and tell them they loved them. At the same time they told them of a brewing plan to overtake the terrorists in a last-ditch effort to save not only their lives, but the lives of the intended target. So, with Todd Beamer's "Let's roll," they bum-rushed the terrorists, falling short of saving their own lives, but succeeding in crashing the plane harmlessly in a field in Pennsylvania, far from the White House. For that deed they are, beyond the shadow of a doubt, some of the greatest heroes in American history. Still, despite all we know about September 11, there's no way to know for sure how things transpired on that plane. We can only speculate, connecting the dots of cell phone calls and what little hard data we have to build a mosaic of what happened, but perhaps that's for the best. There are too few heroes these days.

But for a film version of the flight, that mosaic is precisely what Paul Greengrass had to build, largely from the information at hand and interviews with the family members of the victims, and partly from his imagination. In doing so, he eschews numerous screenwriting techniques of exposition and character development and instead focuses on the mundane conversations that exist every day on flights all over the country. Discussions about work, pending vacations, the weather, and random bits of phone calls all provide the film's ballast, working to ground in reality a decidedly surreal event. If it initially comes off as boring, it's because conversations at airports are universally boring. None of that changes just because the plane's about to be hijacked. Neither does the normal pre-flight prep work, which Greengrass films in some amount of detail[2], only because we know how the film will end, it comes with a sense of foreboding you wouldn't normally find. The shot of the plane being fueled instantly brings to mind that these cross-country flights were selected because they would have more explosive fuel on-board. Greengrass lingers on the cabin door as it's being closed for just a second longer than normal and the result is ominous. It takes your breath away because you realize it's a death sentence, that no one is getting off that flight.

But United 93 really achieves greatness after the hijackings have thrown both the flight and the air traffic control centers into pandemonium. From the FAA trying to get in contact with the military to the military trying to clarify their rules of engagement and find a President who's suddenly nowhere to be found, Greengrass successfully shows us an infrastructure unprepared without attempting to pin the blame. For the goal of United 93 is not to explain why September 11 happened, but rather to show what happened. Greengrass could have easily followed the cry, "where is the President?" with a shot of him in that Florida classroom reading a children's book, and I suspect a number of directors would have done just that, but he doesn't go there because there's no need. Besides, most of the audience already has that shot in the back of their heads anyway. Instead, he goes to the faces of perplexed air traffic controllers, to the panicked passengers, even to the terrorist praying in the cockpit, and in doing so he humanizes the tragedy. Then, in what is the film's most powerful sequence, the passengers of United 93 begin calling the outside world and we watch as terrified faces are attached to these phone recordings we've heard so many times. In the midst of all this chaos the camera focuses on people hunched over, desperate for a quiet pocket where they might be able to better hear, tearfully telling someone they love them. In another part of the plane someone is saying the Lord's Prayer and in the back a plot is being hatched to overtake the cockpit, but the most important thing is being able to say goodbye. It is haunting and powerful and gut-wrenching and numerous other adjectives, but it is also one of the greatest final acts ever put on film.

As the film ended and the audience just sat there in silence, composing themselves, the film lover in me wanted to stay for the next screening, but the person inside doubted I could handle it. For United 93 is not only the most important film made since September 11; it is also the best.

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[1] Not counting Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Spike Lee's 25th Hour (2002), and several other films that have only tangentially been about September 11.

[2] I imagine they didn't include everything.

3 comments:

johanna said...

yeah, i liked this, too, and I didn't expect to - not often in my experience that such a turnaround transpires.

i had one problem, with the ending, and i understand the reasonings for it, but I still think that the ending should have been different. (this should be a fair amount of warning that a spoiler is about to appear...)

and here it is: the manipulative rising score at the end. he manages to eschew that (if i am remembering correctly) throughout the body of the movie, but chose, for some reason, to include that device at the end. i'm not sure if he considered that what it accomplishes (remembering, also, that this movie becomes a record for posterity) is to somehow diminish the tragedy. it's almost like he's containing in it in some way, freezing that moment.

but, for those of us whose brains work just fine without a rising score designed to target specific emotions, all it really did was disconnect me from the people he had portrayed more openly, more authentically.

while there was and is a great need for healing for a lot of people concerned, and I think the director put that first, i wished he had seen the larger picture that - in what would usually be a contradiciton in terms - actually expanded the audience and also reinforced the legitimacy of the film.

since he wasn't providing any new information (possibly the most revealing thing being the lapsed time between the North tower going down and the FAA figuring out what the hell was going on) and he was simply trying to keep the human side of the spectrum properly informed (what a great opening scene) i think he might have stepped back a moment and realized that he shouldn't try and have it both ways; i.e., he should have kept it as open as possible.

i don't think we needed any music to enhance the final crash. yeah, you can say I'm nitpicking, but I think it's a case of a director caught between his better judgment, responsibility towards his film, and history and what might be described as obligation to the families involved. what you end up with, imo, is a slight contradiction b/c, no matter how you look at it, the families are all just as much a part of that humanity as the flight passengers and the hi-jackers. essentially, in trying to present both elements as people, because of the living still lingering in the background, out of sight, the director has achieved a bit of an imbalance.

one more thing, a worrisome item that has me shaken still, days after seeing this: the military jargon of a "real world situation"
(a term I'm familiar with as a Navy daughter) really struck a chord, a strong reminder that the nation's psychosis is never more than a misread away.

all this being said, if you somewhow haven't seen this yet and you're still reading (and, congratulations) I think you should give it a chance...just prepare to have your emotions manipulated at the end, instead of letting your imagination take you where the movie wouldn't let it.

p.s. lucas, is this something new in the way of presentation styles? re-enactment doesn't seem like the right word.

lucas said...

some good points.

he does use the score when the plane takes off and at a couple of other points, but i didn't even notice it at the end b/c i was so shaken (and utterly curious as to what he might use for a final shot). i think going into the ground like that is as good a choice as any, b/c i don't know if you'd want to focus on a single face at that point.

i'm told this is similar in many ways to the Battle of Algiers (196?), but it isn't exactly a re-enactment, more a docu-drama. it is pretty close to a "new" genre, though, or at least one that isn't used all that much.

johanna said...

yeah, even docu-drama doesn't quite do it, nor info- or edutainment, which apply at least at a broad academic level (it was tough for me to admit that, no matter what my reasons for seeing the film, the fact remained that I was in a darkened theatre meant to serve an entertaining, escapist purpose)

...but i didn't have a problem with the plane going into the ground, which really was as good an ending choice as any, but rather the music.

funny, but now that i think of it, the ending was built to be a logical conclusion the audience might actually guess was coming; and yet at the same time, the emotion of the scene (my hands gripped the armrests and I think I arched my back) set a faster pace: masterfully done, but i feel that consistency should have superceded technique.

the sort of montage at the end reminded me of the famous statue whose name i can't recall, the one with the soldiers slunk into mud, trying to keep a flag upright in the middle of a battle, each supporting the next's back...i've always loved that statue, despite my feelings about flags and war. that's not to say that Greengrass was trying to imbue a sense of nationalism; he clearly left that at Take 1.

i think what sets this apart in my mind as a genre unto itself is that it may be the first time in history that reporting media had created a hype that blew things out of proportion and created a national panic. this film sort of lingers as a cultural corrections page, if you will, that the broadcasting agencies never bothered to provide us with. anchors lost all reason that day, and camera crews refused to take the lenses off the towers.

the closest thing to it would be the newspaper wars between Hearst and Pulitzer, which manipulated popular opinion to start a war McKinley didn't want to get into. the difference is that instead of a nation stirred to anger and bloodlust, we had a nation glued to the tv because it was the only thing on and the anchors kept screwing things up and heightening the panic...very irresponsible, either way, from my viewpoint

this film sets perspective that got completely lost that day. and that, in my mind, gives it a wonderful, redemptive aspect, even if the need for it still makes me shudder. and may also set this apart as the first of its kind

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