the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Location: Washington D.C.

Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Friday, May 05, 2006

United 93














On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I, like everyone else in this nation, stood horrified, watching the Twin Towers smolder on the television before me. A TV had been dragged to the main lobby of the building where I was on duty at Bolling Air Force Base base, and dozens of us were crowded around it. I was at Bolling because I was out-processing from the Navy—just a few more days of paperwork and I was officially a civilian again. Watching the carnage unfolding in New York, I began to wonder if they were going to let me go anywhere.

A loud crash made us jump and drew all our eyes to the ceiling. “Jeez,” I thought, “did someone on the next floor just knock over one of those heavy-duty filing cabinets?” And then I went back to watching the TV.

A moment later a sailor burst through the front doors, out of breath, his arms gesticulating wildly behind him.

“It’s been hit…the Pentagon…it’s on fire…it’s on fire!”

We all piled out the front doors and there before us was the massive Pentagon structure, a mere stone’s throw from our building. A large quadrant of it was wreathed in flame. Acrid black smoke belched into the sky.

The base was immediately locked down. Those of us living off base were not allowed to leave. For several days, we slept on floors, in hallways, anywhere they could put us. That night I sat alone at a table in the cafeteria, absentmindedly picking at my dinner. On one of the mounted television screens, CNN showed the Congress gathering on the steps of the Capitol, and in a rare moment of solidarity, singing “God Bless America” in one voice. While they sang, I took my eyes off the TV to the large bay windows just below it. The windows afforded me an unobstructed view of the Pentagon, it’s hemorrhaging flames illuminating the night sky.

* * *

Ever since it was revealed that Hollywood was producing films based on the events of 9/11 (Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center comes out later this year) I’ve heard two predominant reactions: “God, do you think we’re ready” and “Hollywood has a lot of nerve exploiting 9/11 just so that they can make a buck.”

The latter concern first…

If I didn’t understand film’s titanic power over our lives and its enormous ability to move us like no other medium, I’d find the exploitative remarks odd. No one complains about books—even fictional books—written about 9/11. Or songs. Or paintings. Or photographs. Or any other artistic medium. That’s because, as powerful as these tools may be, their spheres of influence pale in comparison to the reach, appeal and incisiveness of movies. Film alone has the power to cut straight through our skin and peel back the layers of our hearts. And it can do so faster than we can ever see it coming.

Which leads me to the former concern…

We’re ready. It is not too soon for United 93 because United 93 does not play like a film that is aware of the five plus years of history trailing behind those tragic events. This is a film told entirely in the present tense. Like an episode of TV’s 24, events unfold in nearly real time, rapid yet realistic.

This is a film that borrows more from the world of documentaries than from feature blockbusters. The camera work is uneven and sporadic, even disconcerting at times as if it too is trying its hardest to keep up with the action but is always just one step behind. Once United flight 93 gets airborne, there are no more establishing shots, no computer-generated planes spinning out of control. We are allowed to see only what the characters see—through windows, computer monitors and TV screens.

You probably won’t recognize a single actor in United 93. Director Paul Greengrass has deliberately chosen faces that you cannot identify. Dozens of the flight controllers and military personnel play themselves. There is no effort to tell the human-interest or back-stories of either the passengers or the terrorists. We don’t see them sharing breakfast with their kids or kissing their spouses before they leave for the airport. We learn very few of their names. All we know about the passengers, crew and terrorists is what we’d know had we been sitting in the terminal with them waiting to board or beside them in the plane. Which is to say, we know their faces. The film alternates between the cabin of 93 and the handful of command posts struggling to decipher what is going on. First one plane is hijacked, then another, then another, then another. Soon these planes begin smashing into buildings, one after another, after another, after another. No one knows what is going on. Pandemonium engulfs everyone.

In the film’s final act, the flight controllers disappear, replaced entirely now with the goings on inside the aircraft. The hijackers have seized the plane, killed several people, appear to have a bomb, and are headed for a collision course with the U.S. Capitol. We know what’s going on and what the passengers will do next because of the cockpit voice recorder and the many telephone calls they made before the rushed their attackers, stormed the cockpit and sacrificed their own lives for those of hundreds of others. There are no mustache-twirling villains here, no standout heroes. Just a planeload of terrified passengers who make the bravest and most sacrificial decision of their lives.

We know what’s coming. It’s our history. And still our stomachs are in knots.

United 93 is a film of extraordinary accuracy. There are no true moments of poetic license. While much of the action inside the aircraft has to be imagined and extrapolated through the scant details that survived, everything, down to the exact lines are recreated with pinpoint realism. (One exception is a shockingly beautiful imagined scene when the hijackers realize they are about to lose control of the plane and the passengers are preparing themselves for the inevitable. Both sides find themselves in prayer. The hijackers chant passages from the Koran juxtaposed with the passenger’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.)

The film contains no politics. No patriotic speeches. No finger pointing. No conspiracy theories. No Iraq. No bigger historical picture. There are no mentions of the “War on Terror” or Osama bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. This is a time before anyone found those names on the tips of their tongues. United 93 is a film devoid of any sort of commentary or conclusions because it does not allow itself to have the benefit of hindsight. Anything brought to this film will be the inevitable result of the viewer superimposing his or her own beliefs atop it.

This is one of those rare films where, when the credits begin the roll and the house lights go up, many people find they cannot move. The theater is uncomfortably silent. The sound of crying is the only thing heard.

I’ve seen it twice today already and I cannot assure you enough that this is a masterful and heartbreaking film. It in no way exploits the events of 9/11 or the people involved in them. In fact, many family members of those killed aboard flight 93 were deeply involved in its production. They have publicly stated, and I agree with them, that this film honors the memories of the fallen.

The film has garnered nearly immaculate reviews. Those who are less then enthusiastic admit to its first-rate production values and even its honorable intentions, but are at a place where they are not yet ready to deal with its subject matter. Such may be some of you. But if you think you are ready to wrestle with these demons, again, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. The theaters I attended were packed—people are seeing this film. And they are applauding when it is over. Like other painful and deeply disturbing films such as Shindler’s List, this is not a film you go to for enjoyment, but because you feel you have a duty to endure it.

------

Before "United 93" begins, the trailer for All the King's Men will be shown. Sean Penn is going to win an Oscar next year. Mark my words. You’ll see what I mean.

8 Comments:

Anonymous BP said...

I was hoping you would go see this and write about it. I wondered. I wondered if I, not the rest of the nation, was ready to see something so "close to home." Anyways, thatnks for the review.

9:17 AM  
Anonymous HH said...

Thanks much for clearing that one up for me. Will definitely go see it when it's finally released over herre 2nd June. Had heard some press coverage, much of which was reasonably favourable, but none put it in context as well as you have. I have a deep interest (as you know) in the works that cross the documentary/drama divide, and it's so good to hear your specific observations about the camera work, etc.

Was also amazed to hear your account of the day itself -- I guess we'll all remember 'where we were' that day, but to see it first hand must have been very frightening.

9:18 AM  
Anonymous Gilly said...

I look forward to seeing it

9:18 AM  
Anonymous Grinth said...

I myself have been torn about going to see this movie, but mainly because I thought it would be used for a giant patriotic pat on the back that films of this type are often prone to do.

It is interesting that you mentioned "Schindler's List" in talking about this film. There are two main schools of thought when it comes to films about traumatic events such as the holocaust or 9/11.

One feels that a film like "Schindler's List", and from the sounds of it, "United 93" serve a great purpose in educating the public, reaching large masses of people, and furthering the memory of said event.

The other feels that you can never truly hope to comprehend a traumatic event and therefore can never really remember it. However, by never truly comprehending that traumatic event, it sticks with you as trauma, and as such you never forget it. The minute you transform a traumatic event into a successful, comprehensible narrative. You lose the trauma and emotional impact and will eventually forget. Along these lines would fall films like Alain Resnais's anti-documentary "Night and Fog" and his more famous film "Hiroshima Mon Amour".

(Personally, while the second school of thought seems somewhat convoluted, I think there is something to it...otherwise people would remember "Casablanca" as much more of a political ideology rather than simply as 'the greatest love story ever told'.)

Out of curiousity, do think this film will really help honor the memory of 9/11 and those involved, or do you think it is but a temporary moment that will only serve to hasten people forgetting 20 years from now?

9:19 AM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

I understand what you mean when you say, "I thought it would be used for a giant patriotic pat on the back." I've avoided watching TV's "The Unit" for just this reason (despite it being a David Mamet production). I get enough disingenuous flag-waving from this Administration.

It is interesting you bring up the interpretive debate in so far as it is concerned with tragic events. I know that our esteemed undergrad film professor feels very strongly on this subject and thinks "Shindler's List" is an atrocious film. I cannot disagree with him more.

I'm not sure what anyone means when they talk about a film "educating the public," at least in this context. While film can certainly educate, I think that many people, film students such as you and I chief among them, analyze films to such a degree that we analyze the emotion right out of them. If film is indeed art (as I dare say you and I think it is), then can a film not simply make a statement, can it not be a representation of our agony, our fears, our anger? Is that not enough? Need there be more?

For me, transforming tragedy into art does not minimize it, it gives me a greater handle by which to hold onto it.

Again, I find it odd that we always have this debate concerning films, but never books or other forms of art. Interesting, no? There is certainly a double-standard when it comes to films, probably because it is the populist medium and, let's face it, if it's art, there's a lot of bad art out there.

While I do think that "United 93" honors the memories of those who died on 9/11, I don't think we should burden it or anything else for that matter with being the sole protector of our traumatic memories. It is a transitory event so the memories it digs up will be transitory. But I certainly don't believe it will aid in the forgetting of that tragic day.

P.S. "Hiroshima Mon Amour" is one of my favorite movies.

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Grinth said...

I did not know that our esteemed undergrad film professor disliked "Schindlers List".

I definitely enjoyed the film.

I would mention though that both "Schindler's List" and "Hiroshima.." transform tragedy into art. The question being not should tragedy be transformed into art but in how that tragedy is transformed.

As much as I enjoyed "Schindler's List" I can barely recollect anything about it. "Hiroshima.." and "Night and Fog" are two films I don't think I will ever forget (as a sidenote, the second time I saw Hiroshima I was shocked because it was in black and white...for whatever reason, after seeing it the first time, I remembered it being in color).

I think I would disagree with you a little bit about this type of debate being medium specific. I just think that with film holding status as a prominently mass media art form, these debates get more attention in film as opposed to other artistic mediums.

P.S. If you haven't already, you should check out Resnais's "Last Year at Marienbad"...excellent film that is quite unlike anything else.

Oh and one other thing. I do agree with you that films can be over analyzed, but for each time what emotional enjoyment I had is lost through analyzation, there are 5 instances of where my emotional reaction to the film is increased....

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Nate said...

I'm of the mind that any sort of debate about art-transforming-tragedy is a dead-end. (You can go around in circles a little bit, and have fun making yourself a little dizzy, but you'll wind up going nowhere.) It's what art is; a medium to communicate. Otherwise it shouldn't exist.
Far more illuminating/constructive would be a discussion about whether there is a place for something like Life is Beautiful, and is that a valid alternative to Schindler's List? To think of one example.

9:21 AM  
Anonymous Robin said...

As intriguing as the 'transformational' theory is, it remains irrelevant for me. Perhaps in another 5 years, or 10, I will be able to view this movie. (Brandon, your original post put me to tears...2 hours of this? no way)

I am, though, very pleased to know that the film is *not* exploitive. That it is more of a memorial/remembrence than a film of the horror we all lived through that day.

I will recommend both the film, and your review to my friends who ask.

9:21 AM  

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