United 93

June 6, 2006

There’s a lot more to United 93 than the inevitable. It’s still too close to the event, of course, but the race is on in Hollywood to make the “definitive” movies about 9-11. Is it better to have strong talent make strong movies sooner rather than later? Who wants to see another me-too flick, no matter how good? The truth is probably grubbier: movies now means big bucks in pocket X instead of pocket Y.

I tried to Google for when the first films about WWII were made but couldn’t find a definitive list quickly. That’s probably because, of course, films about WWII were made during WWII. For example…

Aventure Malgache (1944)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock. This film (along with Bon Voyage) was made by Hitchcock during WWII at the request of the British government. When viewed by government officials they decided that the films were inflammatory and withheld them from distribution. Aventure Malgache, is set in Vichy-controlled Madagascar where the Resistance leader battles to keep his island free.

The first half of United 93 focuses on the very mundane event of passengers getting on the plane. Is there anything more bone-chilling than the mundane? The section where United 93 is still on the ground while the first two planes have hit the WTC is very hard to take.

The film has almost no soundtrack. The director never resorts to emotional manipulation. There are no moments. The most unnerving line for me was a throw-away comment from one of the passengers. He’s chatting on his cell phone before he gets on the plane, squeezing in one last business call, and he says something like, “Cc that e-mail to me, would you?”

During one scene, we see a few passengers recite lines from the Lord’s Prayer while the terrorist in control of the plane prays to Allah in Arabic. I don’t know how to classify that juxtaposition except to say I found it piercing, virtuosic.

United 93 is particularly compelling where it doesn’t demonize the hijackers. They’re obviously deluded, evil people—and the movie shows that—but it doesn’t lower itself to cliché. In fact, the movie even goes so far as to put you in the terrorists’ skin, a gutsy decision on the part of the director, Paul Greengrass (who also wrote the film). We’re not given cartoon villains, but men praying, men quietly preparing for their day, men experiencing fear as they galvanize their will.

Most moving of all, the film gives the quick-thinking, resourceful, brave passengers their due. It’s something to be shown ordinary, decent people working together quickly and fighting for their lives.

I was in NYC a few weeks ago and drove past the site. I haven’t been downtown since before 9-11 and I haven’t watched any of the documentaries about the day. From what I could see from my car, it’s all neat and tidy, barricaded off, but that big gap there, in the middle of all those buildings, is shocking and awful.

Some day, somebody will make a comedy about 9-11, just as there are comedies set in concentration camps. There used to be a sitcom on the BBC called ‘Allo ‘Allo about the French resistence; millions of viewers every week. It ran for years but I couldn’t take a full episode. I’m not po-faced. There are some funny films about WWII, but there’s always that dubious, queasy element. Five years on, 9-11 is still so big and close it’s just too soon for anything beyond the bare, unembellished facts.

United 93 succeeds very well there; it’s an effective document and potent cinema. Considering the subject matter, it’s extraordinarily even-handed and unsensational in tone. (Marian Bantjes’ analysis of the United 93 Web site over at Speak Up confirms that restraint was the core ethic surrounding the production.) It has a mix of actors, non-actors and real world players that builds an air of grave authenticity right from the start. I left feeling that it was as respectful as a movie could be.


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