Sunday, May 21, 2006

United 93


Dir: Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremecy)

I do not understand the argument "it is too soon." What does that mean? Does it suggest a Freudian desire to repress tragedy as the only way to function socially? Does it imply that a film is not the appropriate medium for a memorialization of such a tragedy? Does such a commercial medium intrinsically invite cynicism and insincerity, automatically tainting the meaning of the tragic event? I find the public conversation on this film fasciniating. We are in the process of a rhetorical struggle to generate an ethical perspective on how to handle the most tragic event in recent US history. For me, if all the families of the United 93 passengers support the film, then I have no problem with the production and release of the film "so soon", regardless of what the farmers in Nebraska have to say.

I can only imagine how Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" will be accecpted by an already queasy public. Stone is a political lightning rod with a history of employing the conspiratorial angle to drive the narrative (he also has a history of directing uneven films, which to me might be the greater insult--I am okay with a conspiracy read on 9-11, but any 9-11 film better be a damn good film. And when your previous movie is "Alexander," you better be on your game). He promises that this will not be the case--so, in Stone we trust.

Greengrass, however, takes the proper track. He is an Englishman, a solid filmmaker but, at present, remains rather anonymous. He uses unknowns to play the passengers and terrorists. Nothing on or off screen distracts from the gravity of the event. In fact, most of the airtraffic controllers are the real people; I can only assume that acting in the film was quite therapeutic. There is no character development, in the traditional narrative sense. The camera, in unfettered documentary style, just captures the mundane but all too human small talk that passengers and filght crews exchange on any early morning flight. The innocence of America is subtle but apparent. During those morning hours when the country rose from its secure slumber, we were comfortable in our city upon the hill to speak sincerely with our single serving friends about the troubles of remodeling the kitchen or planting geraniums. But, knowing what happens makes such banter uncomfortable.

On very few occasions are names exchanged. Despite the lack of expository introductions, the people in the film are immediately identifiable (I think there is a rich conversation about how the lack of naming the characters in favor of just the face makes the emotional gravity of the film more effective). However, in the closing credit crawl, everyone is honored with their full name, as to be expected. Greengrass only moves between the various airtraffic control towers and United 93. Jerky camera movement coupled with the frenetic pace of the actual events generates a great deal of discomfort and nausea. He resists any temptation to show a scene or group of individuals not directly involved in the events, providing us with just "information" about the series of events. I am glad he avoids anything overtly political (there are some parallels between how the terrorists and passengers exercise their faith in the face of death) . Although it is there, especially in the frenetic exchanges between the civilian and military air towers. The military, all the way up to the President, are cast, ever so subtly, as beaurucratic and slow. Anything beyond that, in my view, is an irresponsible criticism.

The film only asks us to remember and appreciate the sacrifice. It brought me back to that moment: hearing for the first time about some plane crash at the World Trade Center from Howard Stern right after dropping off Alessandra at school, returning home only to see the second plane hit the second tower, waiting for Alessandra to come home (especially when the news reported that a fourth plane was missing over Western Pennsylvania), calling Marcus to turn on the TV and come by, and then spending the rest of the day with loved ones absorbing the tragedy till the small hours of the night.

I often wonder if this were to happen in a different country (the actual hijacking and using of planes to destroy highly populated and highly symbolic areas), and the people in the last plane knew what was unfolding, would they have reacted the same way as the United 93 passengers. Obviously, such a thought experiment could never be tested, but my gut instinct would be to say no. I do not wish to sound jingoistic, but the American cultural psyche is one of extremes (witness the cowboy attitude that informs our foreign and social policies). So this cavalier sense of duty seems so uniquely American. I firmly believe that no American plane will ever again be successfully hijacked.

I know there are conspiracy theories that suggest United 93 was shot down by American fighters, but we do know that there were attempts to retake the plane. I am one who usually favors the truth, but I prefer the narrative of heroism and bravery where regular Americans stood up for her people in the face of eminent doom. I guess that is the inescapable American in me.

Exploitive? No, and the families agree with me (in fact, after the Tribeca screening, a mother of one the victims approached an actor who played the lead terrorist and thanked-and hugged-him for his bravery in playing such a role. I agree.) Uncomfortable? Most certainly. Important cultural document worth seeing? Definitely.


Blogger paroske noted on 5/21/2006 06:39:00 PM that...

Yes, that "it's too soon" stuff is the bunk. Even if the families aren't on board.

We were making movies about WWII during World War II. Body bage coming home every day, Pearl Harbor still fresh in the minds. Most of those movies wer garbage but people still watched them. Even if some 9/11 movies were rank propaganda or conspiracy drivel, no one should get a veto over what stories a society tells.