Director : Paul Greengrass
Screenplay : Paul Greengrass
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : J.J. Johnson (Capt. Jason Dahl), Himself (Ben Sliney), Gregg Henry (Col. Robert Marr), David Alan Basche (Todd Beamer), Christian Clemenson (Thomas Burnett), Becky London (Jean Hoadley Peterson), Trish Gates (Sandra Bradshaw), Cheyenne Jackson (Mark Bingham), Chip Zien (Mark Rothenberg)
In 1937, Delmore Schwartz wrote a short story called “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” in which the first-person narrator dreams that he is in a theater watching his parents’ courtship unfold as an old Biograph silent film. Knowing that his parents’ relationship will turn sour and that, in his words, “nothing good will come of it,” the narrator stands up several times and implores the two-dimensional cinematic representations of his parents to stop what they are doing. But, as scholar James Atlas so cogently noted in his analysis of the story, “The past revived must obey its own unfolding, true to the law of mistakes. The reel must run its course; it cannot be cut; it cannot be edited.”
This, more than anything, sums up the experience of watching United 93, Paul Greengrass’s harrowing, emotionally devastating, documentary-like recreation of the events the transpired on the otherwise clear morning of September 11, 2001. The film’s power derives from many sources, but none so strong as the audience’s complicit knowledge of how it will all turn out. As United 93 unspools, Greengrass is not interested in developing suspense, but rather a feeling of absolute and unmitigated dread. There is a masochistic quality to watching the film, as we enter the theater knowing full well the horrors we are about to witness, all of which have roots in real-life events not even five years past.
On an emotional level, it reminded me greatly of Kanal (1956), an equally harrowing film about the failed Warsaw Uprising by the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda. In voice-over narration, Wajda informs us that all of his characters will be dead by the end of the film, he and implores us to watch carefully, “for these are the last moments of their lives.” Greengrass invites us to do the same.
The film takes place in virtual real time, cutting among the events on-board United Flight 93, which was the only plane of the four hijacked that morning not to strike its intended target, and the escalating confusion on the ground. As much as 9/11 was a worldwide mediated event, with virtually every second of terror played and replayed on television until we were numb, Greengrass manages to evoke new horrors in his film by taking us inside the confusion, showing us how the scenario was slowly and belatedly pieced together by those who were in a position to possibly do something about it. Thus, we get scenes inside various air control facilities in New York and Ohio, as well as the FAA’s command center in Herndon, Virginia, and the Northeast Air Defense Sector base in Rome, New York, each of which is a portrait of chaos and frustrating bewilderment. Never before have I been so keenly aware of just how unprepared the guardians of the United States--both the military and the aviation industry--were for such an event.
Greengrass allows the film to develop slowly, beginning in the early morning hours as the four hijackers read from the Koran and prepare themselves for what they feel they must do. We get images of the Newark airport in full bustle, as each of the passengers boards, unaware that the flight to San Francisco is going to send them into the annals of history. The air traffic controllers, several of whom are portrayed by their real-life counterparts, are going about their everyday business until some of the green blips on their screens start doing things they shouldn’t.
From there, the film escalates as we know it must, until Greengrass finally abandons the world on the ground and concentrates the film’s final moments entirely on the plane, as the hijackers take control and the passengers eventually revolt. It is here that Greengrass’s commendable restraint and emphasis on simplicity take center stage, as he refuses to turn the passenger revolt into some pseudo-patriotic call to arms. Rather, he presents it as a group of terrified people facing a certain death making a hasty decision to determine their own fate. There is no sense of tacked-on heroism or national duty, but rather the jittery, horrifying sense of seeing your own death approaching.
In this respect, Greengrass is also generous in his depiction of the hijackers. He doesn’t make them out to be monstrous or villainous or any of the other things that would make them into cartoonish targets for the audience’s catharsis. Rather, he depicts them as individuals who, through deep religious conviction, have convinced themselves that what they are doing is right. Even here, though, Greengrass gives them an uncompromised humanity in that he does not present all four of them as being cut from the same cloth. Rather, some are more anxious to get on with the hijacking than others, and at no point do we get the sense that they are so high on their sanctimonious conviction that they are immune from fear and trepidation. Greengrass also avoids the kind of sentimental entrapment that buried A&E’s made-for-TV treatment of the same story by not digging too deep into the traumatic phone calls the passengers made to their loved ones from the air. He gives this subplot its due, and uses it to underscore the humanity of his characters, but doesn’t push it to the point of schmaltz.
Greengrass, best known in the U.S. for his action-thriller The Bourne Supremacy (2003), has worked this kind of material before when he made Bloody Sunday(1972), a politically sensitive, documentary-like recreation of the 1972 massacre of civil rights demonstrators in Northern Ireland by the British army. Greengrass, who began his film career as a documentary filmmaker for the BBC, has an innate sense of what strikes viewers as realistic. His use of grainy film stock, natural lighting, and handheld cameras creates a remarkable sense of immediacy. There is a potential source of criticism in the way the film presents itself whole-heartedly as fact, when much of what takes place on-board is at best educated guesses, but how could it be anything but? (Perhaps a disclaimer at the beginning of the film would have helped soothe any feelings that the film oversteps the bounds between re-creation and “truth.”)
Of course, the de rigeur question about United 93 is not whether it’s good or realistic, but whether it’s “too soon.” However, such a question does not even deserve an answer because it misses the fundamental fact that there is no such thing as “too soon” regarding art’s relationship to the world that forges it. And, even if there were, what would be an appropriate length of time? How much cushion do we need between the horrors of the world and their representation on-screen?
So, the real question facing us is whether or not United 93 does justice to its subject, and in my opinion, the answer is an unqualified “yes,” albeit not for the reasons that many others have offered. There has been much press coverage of how the families of those killed on United Flight 93 have given the film their approval, which in some people’s eyes makes it worthy. The tendency is to see the film as a memorial to the deceased, which is not how I want to view it. The world is filled with memorials that direct our vision to the past, rather than encouraging us to learn from it and look to the future.
The real power in United 93 is not what it says about death, but what it says about life. It is not a memorial for the dead, but a plea to the living: without ever speechifying, the agonizing 111 minutes that comprise United 93 make you realize just how precious and precarious life is and how important it is to embrace it and the people your love every moment you’re alive. For that reason alone it is worth not just seeing, but worth cherishing.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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