Is it too soon? That’s the big question that greeted United 93’s arrival in cinemas, less than five years after its crash into a Pennsylvania field, the only one of four aircraft not to hit its designated target on September 11th, 2001. Angry answers in the affirmative had already greeted the film’s trailer prior to release. So when does the appropriate mourning period end? When, if ever, is it the right time?
The frank, objective answer is it’s never too soon if you’re seeking to honestly reveal seismic moments in human existence. Surely the most pertinent question is what can it achieve? What should it strive for? And, perhaps equally important, what should it avoid?
Given that ultimately United 93 is an American studio film, what’s so impressive with Greengrass and his crew’s choices is their refusal to pander to Hollywood cliché. From the outset the film rejects bombast and portentousness in favour of the ordinary, the everyday: planes refuelling, passengers milling about, air-traffic controllers routinely juggling thousands of aircraft from tiny blips on a radar.
The absence of a single recognisable actor reinforces the sense of randomness of that day. The cast is a mix of unknowns and non-professionals, with several aviation and military personnel playing themselves, notably Federal Aviation Authority controller Ben Sliney reliving officially the worst ever “first day on the job”. To a man and woman, all are utterly convincing. No stars, just talent.
John Powell’s mournful score is understated yet powerful. Dialogue frequently overlaps, official jargon left unexplained, panicked exchanges left inaudible (passenger Todd Beamer’s much-heralded “Let’s roll” almost swallowed up in a longer line of dialogue). Greengrass’s trademark handheld, verite-style camerawork and editing thrust us right into the moment. It all ratchets up the film’s power when such normality gets completely upended. No one was prepared for 9/11 and the film unerringly recreates the day’s mix of shock, disbelief and bewilderment.
In many ways, then, this is as committed and competent a tribute the relatives of those who died could have asked for, made with skill, passion and reverence. Any other approach now seems unthinkable.
United 93’s biggest problem is its ending. We know about the harrowing phone calls made to loved ones; we know where and when the plane crashed; but we don’t know what actually happened on board in those final, fateful moments. Nobody does.
Including Paul Greengrass. Yet he offers a version that, at the death, strays perilously close to Hollywood wish-fulfilment. Did the passengers breach the cockpit? Did they avenge themselves on one or more of the terrorists? United 93 says, unequivocally, Yes. Some catharsis.
It’s a risky move and feels at odds with all the preceding claims of stringent factual veracity. The film wants, more than anything, us to believe it. But to insist chief Ben Sliney reproduce his day-from-hell verbatim, then suddenly up the drama portion of its “docudrama” mix when convenient, seems problematic at least.
Greengrass holds that United 93’s passengers were the very first people to be confronted directly with the post-9/11 world and forced to act accordingly. “They didn’t duck the issue,” he asserts. For the families too, it’s comforting to read their uprising as a concerted, self-sacrificing move for the greater good.
It’s provocative, persuasive, but avoids the major difference between the passengers and us. They were fighting for their lives right there and then. They had to hit back, swiftly and forcefully, to survive. Is that heroic? Anyone who takes on armed killers, especially 30,000 feet up in the sky, earns that accolade. But that such courage can so easily be co-opted into propaganda is highly unsettling.
Following the film's wrenching, final cut-to-black, its original end title card read "America's war on terror had begun". As last words, it's not quite as inciting as Mel Gibson's avenging "Dirty Jesus", stalking out of the tomb at the close of The Passion of the Christ, but it's not far off. The version of United 93 released instead ends with the more dispassionate "Dedicated to the memory of all those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001". But the intent of the original wording remains implicit in those final harrowing images.
To invoke those onboard as some kind of broader symbol of Western response does a grave disservice to the passengers themselves and to our notions of what civilized democracy should be. The film’s depictions of the murdering terrorists may be indicative of Islamic extremism, even if it doesn’t explain what drives them. The passengers of United 93 may have led the first, desperate, savage fight back but their approach – the only possible in dire circumstances – cannot be our final one.
Everyone else, politicians, religious leaders, the population-at-large, needs a far more measured, thought-out strategy for a much wider-reaching, ever-evolving endgame. We have that luxury. Those on United 93 didn’t. It’s one hell of a difference.
This comes back to the issue of what we can possibly take from United 93. It’s a harrowing emotional experience; a bravura piece of technical filmmaking; a gruesome, if heartfelt, memorial to those killed that day. But what can it really illuminate for us? A sense of the sheer confusion that reigned as “9/11” began? The utter terror that must have dawned on those unfortunate souls onboard the plane, when they realised that they were not to be mere bargaining chips in a hijacking trade-off but were going to be cashed in, no matter what?
Yes. And yes. But the exclusive focus on the statistics and logistics of what happened that day, as the various ruling systems of civil aviation and military crumble at the unexpected, denies us any context, and thus any meaningful understanding of what 9/11 really embodies. What we learn is how fragile and easily susceptible our infrastructures are under pressure. At the risk of sounding heartlessly glib, you realise that every single time junk mail clogs up your inbox or you’re stuck in a tunnel on a subway train.
“We went to war in the space of two short hours against an enemy we never saw and barely understood, in a state of confusion” says Greengrass. That seems to be the precise effect that he and his team, brilliantly effectively, have repeated. And other than having made the feel-bad movie of the decade, perhaps even, given its context, of all time, is that enough?
The frank, objective answer is it’s never enough if you’re seeking to honestly reveal seismic moments in human existence. As shattering, intense and respectful a viewing experience as United 93 is, the real issue is whether we can forge creative responses that genuinely help illuminate our post-9/11 world. Those are the artistic endeavours that really can’t come too soon.
posted February 6th, 2007