United 93: Too Soon? Too Much?
The concerns are obvious; is it too soon? If not now, when? If now, why? What is there to gain? What are the moral implications of making (and profiting from) a film about other people's tragedies? Especially when those tragedies continue to affect so many first-hand?
And I will touch on those concerns, as will every other review that has been and will be written about United 93. But going into the theater I had a different question in mind, one that has not had nearly as many column inches devoted to it: is the movie actually good?
The events of September 11, 2001 are etched permanently in the minds of every American man, woman and child...at least, a version of those events...the emotions, the terror, and, for many people, the personal tragedy. September 11 is very much this younger generation's Pearl Harbor; it affected the lives of everybody in the country...regardless of distance or involvement. It was a moment of intense chaos; nobody knew exactly what was happening, or why, or where it was going to happen next. It is not much of a reach to say that life began to feel paper-thin that day, and it was a long road to recovery.
But are we there yet? How much recovery has really been made? Ask yourself how much your personal wounds have healed. Are you ready to stare them in the face? Are you ready to climb inside one of the hijacked planes and sit among the passengers, every one of whom is doomed?
Maybe not. And for that reason many people say that United 93 is too much too soon. But for that very reason I say it's now or never.
First, though, the film itself. Director Paul Greengrass is not giving us a movie; he's giving us an experience. While that may sound like praise, it's a double-edged blade. One which Greengrass yeilds pretty expertly, I must say, but it's double-edged all the same.
With few exceptions, one has a pretty firm set of expectations when they walk into a movie theater; they expect a plot to unfold and to resolve itself, they expect characters to develop, they expect to like certain characters, dislike others, they expect to believe them. United 93 intentionally shrugs off nearly all of these expectations. And I, for one, think that was a very good move.
United 93 does not give us a plot; it gives us an event. It does not give us characters; it gives us people. And it does not give us resolution; at least, no more resolution than we've had in reality.
There are no flashbacks to "the day before." No tugging of the heart-strings as John Doe kisses his sweetie goodbye for the last time. No portraits of the terrorists as young men. We see what a passenger ostensibly would have seen, which is, frankly, very little. There's a great deal of confusion in the film, a great deal of unbelief...and a strong sense of terror.
All of which Greengrass does very well. By casting an assortment of nobodies it makes the passengers seem more like people than actors...and that was a good move. It would be impossible to see Jack Nicholson sitting anywhere on the plane and not think of him as Jack Nicholson; it would have given the audience relief from the events...it would have reminded them that what they were watching was at least somewhat fictional. Greengrass does not do this. Greengrass does not flinch. The audience flinches.
And this is where the first battle-scar from the double-edged sword comes through: the acting. While on the whole it's convincingly natural, there are times during which a line is delivered (the incidents are always isolated; there is no poor performance overall) that sort of pulls you out of the film and gives you a moment to remember that these are people who are acting out a script. And while it comes as a relief to the audience of United 93 to remember that they're sitting in a movie theater with a home to return to when the two hours are up, it's not a relief that the film should offer.
The ground crew was played by, in many cases, the actual ground crew on duty the day of the attacks. It adds an element of realism to the film, but if you want to find those lines that are sort of misspoken and awkward, these are the people to watch. Do they do a good job for people who have never acted before? Yes. Is it one hundred percent convincing? Unfortunately, it is not.
This is, however, more than made up for by the four actors who played the hijackers...each of which brings a strong element of humanity to the part that is utterly, utterly disarming. While they are acting monsterously at no point do they play the part as monsters. In fact, this is one of Greengrass's greatest accomplishments with United 93; the terrorists are humanized. Don't mistake this for sympathy, however...it's very clear who the heroes are here. Yet Greengrass allows them personality, he allows them direction, dedication, loyalty...and it makes the film that much more chilling.
If he had allowed the actors to play the roles as villains...as a small group of people salivating hatred and doing essentially terroristic things throughout the course of the film, well, then we'd just have a plane full of idiots who can't sense obvious danger. Instead we have four human beings...four people who don't look much different, don't act much different...four people who could be anybody at all. And it's a horrifying reality.
Regarding the terrorists, Greengrass gets everything absolutely right, at least in terms of presentation. I can't speak about accuracy as I'm no 911 scholar (nor conspiracy theorist) but I am a viewer, an author, a humanist...and he paints the portraits of the hijackers with very well-considered strokes.
In one of the more interesting moments of the film, Greengrass cuts from several passengers reciting the Our Father prayer to the terrorists in the cockpit, reciting a Muslim prayer of their own. What is Greengrass saying here? Is it our God against theirs? Are they praying to the same God? Are they each guilty of shifting responsibility for what is happening? Or is Greengrass saying nothing at all? I'm leaning toward that last possibility; he's leaving it open. It was intentional on his part to cut between the two prayers, but what an audience will draw from the image is up to them. As well it should be, because United 93 does its best to eschew agenda.
This is achieved by its much-discussed style of documentary. I have to wonder how many other films have made the decision to go the faux-documentary route with real-life events. Certainly it's been a staple of comedy at least as far back as This Is Spinal Tap, and it's infested just about every dramatic cop or lawyer show on television...but how often is it used to re-enact real life events for the big screen? Its comparative uniqueness contributes to the film's realism...its awkward camera angles, its poor lighting, the way you don't manage to catch everything people say...it puts you in the plane. It puts you amongst the chaos. It does as much as a film can ever do to actually have you fearing for your safety.
But there swings that double-edged blade again, as Greengrass does make some rather odd decisions with the format. My biggest gripe is with the music...while it is used sparingly (and kudos for that), why is there music at all? Surely the end credits are somewhat cheapened by a tune (mellow or not) underscoring them and reminding you that, yes, this was a production after all. And why on earth did he insert a song into the scene in which ground controllers are slowing down recordings of cockpit transmissions to determine what the hijackers said? In a scene that is based around trying to figure out what, exactly, was said in a garbled message, we don't need to have the message competing with background music for clarity. It was a poor decision, and one that certainly should have been realized in the edit.
But all of this is minor compared to what Greengrass achieves, which is a lot. With 911 only five years behind us (and its effects still obvious) it takes a lot to convince an audience that the passengers might actually succeed in their plot for survival...but he does this, and does this well. I don't believe there was one person in the theater who didn't remain hopeful, in spite of the knowledge they already had. The applause that went up when the first of the hijackers fell to the fists and kicks of the uprising was a moment of strange catharsis. In light of what was going to happen momentarily it was a very cold celebration...but the audience needed to see that terrorist fall...they needed to watch him get his face kicked in...Greengrass doesn't linger any longer on the moment than he should have, but the audience wanted more...this was the moment of which they could be proud...this was the moment--the only moment--during which the doomed had the upper hand.
And it's a moment like that that convinces me that now is the time for United 93. The effects of 911 were still fresh in the minds of everyone in that theater, and they needed to be...because these were people who wanted to celebrate the only small triumph of that day...the only moment during which terrorism was thwarted. And they would not stand for anything but accuracy--at least, as close to accuracy as possible.
Making this movie further down the line would push it nearer and nearer the realm of fantasy. Wait too long and it will become a Titanic or a Pearl Harbor...911 will become a set piece against which to play out some banal romantic tragedy. The lives will have meant nothing...the event will be reworked and redecorated to look good behind the stars of the day. It will be a cash-in. It will break box-office records. More importantly, it'll be utterly meaningless.
United 93 is far from meaningless; it's a film that's done its homework...anyone who has read transcripts of the black box recordings will recognize some of the lines...family members of the passengers even provided Greengrass with personal information, right down to what the victims were wearing on the last day of their lives. It's obvious attention to detail like this that makes United 93 such a dangerous film...and dangerous is exactly what a 911 film should be. If we ever wanted a document of the emotion and hysteria of the day, United 93 arrived just on time.