In efforts to downplay the passive nature of movie going, Hollywood advertisements like to portray films as experiences. Few live up to this dramatic billing, and those that do tend to work like carnival attractions: thrilling for a moment, but basically shallow and safe.
Paul Greengrass’ United 93 is no carnival attraction.
The first theatrically released film to explicitly portray the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Greengrass’ movie, like the day it depicts, is wholly unique–a captivating, devastating experience that is anything but safe. Taking no sides in the ongoing war-on-terror debates, the film places people above politics, capturing the weird calm, the surreal chaos, and the ultimate terror of September 11 with striking accuracy. With its swerving camera movements and impersonal characterizations, United 93 is a technical tour-de-force of documentary realism that, in its precision-focus on that day’s specific events–detached from their larger political context–transcends both the partisan posturing of political filmmaking and the reassuring neatness of traditional narrative.
Greengrass has no need for the usual machinations of movie suspense. Instead of setups and payoffs of obstacles discovered and overcome, there is only a gathering sense of dread. Opening with the Flight 93 terrorists praying in their hotel room before moving to the airport, various air traffic control towers, and, of course, the cabin of Flight 93 itself, the film builds tension as it zips ever more quickly between the plane and increasingly hectic command centers. After the plane lifts off, the film settles into approximately real time, covering the ill-fated 81 minutes in which the plane was hijacked, turned toward Washington, and flown into the ground after a passenger revolt. This final act looms over even the calmest moments, coloring every frame with anxiety and despair.
In a sense, United 93 works as an exercise in long form fatalism. Movies, of course, are always fatalistic in some sense–the ending is already determined, the final reel already shot. But there is a feeling that the events playing out on screen are not yet determined, and it is that inherent possibility that grips us. United 93 twists this feeling. We know that the plane will go down and the passengers will die, but the movie medium manipulates the uncertain hope we feel when watching a conventional film. The movie cannot help but dredge up hope, but like September 11 itself, we find ourselves powerless, fated only to watch and weep.
Unlike other historical disaster films, very little is not preordained. Greengrass hews strictly to what is known or can be reasonably surmised; the film is based on both official reports and interviews with the victims’ families. In the air traffic control rooms, many of the performers are the real-life controllers who worked on the morning of 9/11. As much as possible, what we see is what probably happened.
This adherence to what can be known means that there is much the movie leaves out. Instead of fleshing out the characters, they are left purposely thin. The passengers on the plane are barely distinguishable from each other. Greengrass does not let them become action heroes or speechifying icons; he has too much respect to portray them so heavy-handedly. There is, in fact, a pervasive sense of ordinariness throughout the film; even at the height of chaos, the mundane confusion of the workplace continues to hum in the air traffic control centers, a host of disconnected conversations always chattering in the background. As on 9/11, events feel both familiar and surreal, as if reality had been stormed by the impossible. One can look at what’s happening and see that it is real, yet the question remains: How can this have happened?
Greengrass wisely avoids partisan squabbling, preferring instead to let events unfold independent of causality. The film makes neither jabs at the Bush administration nor forays into post-9/11 political debates. The Iraq war, homeland security, and all the ancillary issues are left untouched. To enter these debates would have been futile, for these external issues are, in the end, a way of seeking solace in understanding.
The terrorists themselves are presented without sympathy or humanization. They are not given inner lives or complicated backstories. They do not express remorse and, in fact, celebrate news of the World Trade Center’s destruction. They are simply and utterly evil, cold and unknowable, and Greengrass does not attempt to rationalize their menace.
No, there can be no explaining the horror of mass murder, no satisfying accounting for the motives of committed terrorists. To think that reason can handily explain September 11 is a folly that Greengrass avoids. The terror of that day is simply presented for what it is: unfathomable madness. United 93 offers nothing so easy as answers or explanations; there are none to be found. Instead, it provides a record, a memorial–an arresting, unflinching experience–of a day we can never forget.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire