Sunday, April 30, 2006


Last night I saw the film United 93. I have not completely worked out in my mind how I feel about the experience, but I'll try to stumble along here.

When I first heard about the film, I was not sure I wanted to see it. For this particular movie, I wanted to wait to see what the reviews said about it. I am not a person who always has all the faith in reviews, and in this case, I was waiting for the reviews for a different reason. I was nervous about what that this movie would focus on. I was nervous that it could be an oversentimental, schlocky, yellow-ribbon-on-your-car campaign. The movie could have been a very Toby Keith-type pseudo-patriotic exploitation film. So I wanted to wait and see what the reviews said about it in that sense.

And the reviews started coming in, saying it was non-exploitative and apolitical, not to mention one of the best films of the year, and so I was relieved. I am not one of the people who think that it is "too soon" for a movie like this -- I just want to know why it was made. I have read extensively about the making of the film. The director/writer Paul Greengrass did painstaking research, pouring through cell phone transcripts, FAA records, etc., and he also worked closely with the families of every single victim of Flight 93. I was heartened to read that if one single family had said "no" to the film, he would have pulled the plug. Greengrass (and the family members) wanted to make a movie to honor the passengers.

So, I decided that I should see it.

The opening scene made me very nervous -- it shows the terrorists in their hotel rooms getting ready to go to the airport. The focus is on the fact that they are praying. I was nervous because I worried that the movie would come across as anti-Islam, but in the end I do not think it does. The movie then moves on and tells two separate stories: what happens on the plane and what happens on the ground -- in the FAA control center, the military command center, etc. I was very intrigued to learn that many of the actors in the FAA and military scenes were not professional actors but were in fact the real life people being portrayed. For example, as the director of the FAA (whose first day on the job was 9/11), Ben Sliney plays himself.

The film moves along with frenetic camera work to the final act, the famous confrontation on the plane. The most heartbreaking scenes involve the passengers making phone calls to their families and friends. What I liked (which is a word that is awkward here, but I have to make it work), and what many critics have written about, is that we never really know anything about these people -- they are thrust into an extraordinary situation, and they make a heroic decision. In Roger Ebert's review, he writes, "The famous words 'Let's roll' are heard but not underlined; these people are not speaking for history." In a lesser movie, these words would be a focus point. In a lesser movie, we would know the backstories of these passengers and associate them as character-types. I like that we are not even given the passengers' names, because they did not know each other either. In this film, we simply watch, in sadness, as the events unfold.

Two of my friends who went with me to the theater told me that at first they wanted to leave because they felt like voyeurs. The style of the film is, in fact, very voyeuristic. And that is why I struggle with my reaction to it. No one can deny that it is a masterpiece of filmmaking. The direction, the cinematography -- everything filmic about this movie is extraordinary. But why did I see this film? Why was this film made?

In the end, I believe it does honor the passengers of the flight. It does this by simply showing the real events. What the passengers did with the information they had was incredible, and any extra commentary would have been false. So I think the voyeuristic style is necessary.

I have another, more personal reaction to the film. Before I saw United 93, I had a bias in my mind about the story. In the year that followed 9/11, I was very put off by the very public widow Lisa Beamer, who went around promoting her book Let's Roll! I know that she was earnest, but I found her message and delivery very off-putting. Likewise, I was disgusted that the phrase "Let's Roll!" became a rallying cry for the kind of pseudo-patriotism that was rampant after 9/11. (I do not believe that all patriotism after 9/11 was phony, but a lot of the most visible displays were, in my opinion.) Anyway, I know that this is unfair, but because of the way the story was publicized, in my mind I associated "Let's Roll!" and the whole flight 93 story with Toby Keith and "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" and all that I felt was gross about America's reaction to 9/11.

But this film, United 93, changes that for me. I can now see the passengers as heroes without associating them in my mind with this phoniness. (Again, I know that this was an unfair association.) These people did not know we were now at war with terrorists or that America was now a different place; they just knew that they could save lives if they could take control of the plane.

United 93 is powerful, heartbreaking, important, and brilliantly made. It is also excruciating to watch. It will probably win Oscars. I am glad I saw it (again, glad is the wrong word here), but I will also never watch it again.


At 1:23 PM, Blogger Tay posited...

i thought sorta the same way. i went with jason, jeff, and sam. of course jeff being in tv pro just hated the shoddy camera work (we all realized the point of it, but truth be told i started to get really sick towards the middle of the film - a combination of the blair-witch-project shakiness and the lady who smelled like she was preserved in formaldehyde sitting next to me) and the consensus is that an occasional steady shot would have been nice at the beginning in the control tower scenes.

the very end scene is incredible. you just get swept up in it. up until that point you are just sorta sitting there, watching a car wreck, knowing what is going to happen and just letting the agonizing seconds tick away. you see the teenage girl and elderly couple before they even enter the plane and know they are going to die. that shaky camera work continues to build the suspense and pretty soon the whole thing just boils over and you feel like you are charging with them. the end scene never cuts away (to my recollection, which at this point may be sorta hazy) from the plane.

all in all i walked away from the movie in much the same way as wanninger did. just not sure how to feel about the whole thing. we all agreed it was an excellent film and it was good that we saw it. it wasn't "entertaining" in the traditional sense of spoon-fed comedy or drama or action. and most of all, it didn't reek of that "Toby Keith and 'Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue'" that i too felt was just disgusting.

it didn't make me happy or any more resolved on our fight on terror. it didn't help me understand anything about that day or the days that followed. but it did, in its own way, sorta close that chapter of the book.

At 4:30 PM, Anonymous ap posited...

I was going to ask.

At 7:41 PM, Blogger Houley posited...

I agree fully. I probably could've written that review, minus the "Toby Keith sucks" addendum. I was likewise struck with that question of "why was this made?" I couldn't find the director's purpose, his push... and there really wasn't one. As Ebert put it, "it would have been much more disturbing if Greengrass had made it in a conventional way. He does not exploit, he draws no conclusions, he points no fingers, he avoids 'human interest' and 'personal dramas' and just simply watches."

At 7:50 PM, Blogger CoachDub posited...

But like Ebert, that is what I liked most about it, as I said.

At 8:45 PM, Blogger constant_k posited...

Damnit, now I have to see this movie. This is like Brokeback all over again.

At 1:13 PM, Anonymous kath posited...

John, I'm glad you went to see this--I can now consider my viewing of it to have been outsourced to you. Thanks for fulfilling your end of the (after the fact) contract.

After working 6 blocks from Ground Zero while it burned for 3 months, and dealing with the residual trauma of my staff having to run to safety from the falling buildings, I have no idea when/if I will ever watch anything about 9/ matter its cinematic virtues.

So, thanks for summing it up for me so I can have some sort of opinion when it comes up in coversation.

At 10:19 PM, Blogger CoachDub posited...

Kathy, I can completely understand why you don't want to see it. I am glad I can be your viewer-by-proxy.


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