Sunday, June 25, 2006

United 93 (Greengrass, 2006)

For his latest film, United 93, director Paul Greengrass gave himself a task so ridiculously difficult that it seemed destined for failure. His goal: to recreate the events occurring aboard the doomed flight based on incomplete information without alienating an intensely sensitive public and without being lumped in with numerous other filmmakers with a political ax to grind. He needed to avoid exploitation and sensationalism while staying true to the grisly truth. He needed to make a film that was purposeful without seeming to drag the audience to his point of view. Much to my surprise, he has largely succeeded.

The first thing to be said about United 93 is that it is utterly compelling. Much of the information we receive in the film is not new. The timeline for the morning in question is painfully familiar in most of our minds. However, it turns out that there is indeed a value to putting these pieces together and watching the reenactment unfold. With skillful pacing, Greengrass takes us through a morning that begins as ordinary, soon becomes disorienting and ends in sickening chaos. I am not normally a huge fan of naturalism, but it is appropriate in this case. To take us where he wants to take us, Greengrass needs no extraneous poetry, high concept or unusual style. It is enough to take us behind the scenes of air traffic control and allow us to be privy to decisions being made by people with little idea of just how big a threat they are up against. On more than one occasion, we see or hear just how many planes are in the sky. I recall that one of the most ominous things about 9/11 was not knowing when it would end. What new nightmare lay around the corner, waiting to be discovered?

For just about anyone, it was nearly impossible to work that day. Greengrass shows us those who absolutely had to continue working because it was their job to respond. Every person we see on screen is ordinary, from the stewardesses to the passengers to the military to the air traffic controllers to the terrorists themselves. Greengrass does his best not to paint heroes and villains. He does not make the mistake of making this a story about individuals. We only learn as much about each person as could be reasonably gleaned from eavesdropping on them across the aisle, or observing their response to an impossible situation.

Does this make Greengrass impartial? Of course not. From watching the film, it seems apparent that he is concerned about the intrusion of irrationality into secular society. The film begins and ends with prayer. And without any deep explanation of the terrorists’ motives, their religious faith is left as primary motivator that allows them to commit despicable acts of cruelty and violence. One critical character appears to harbor doubts, only to later find the will to complete his task through an appeal to his deity. Since there is no way for Greengrass to have known this character’s mindset on the day in question, we must look at it as a thematic addition, placed to draw attention to a battle that has not received enough attention in the press and which seems all the more clear to me now. Beyond the destruction, I believe that 9/11 was intended as a worldwide demonstration of true faith in action. These hijackers and those who funded them counted on the fact that their side would meet death with open arms, while the other side would be caught screaming in terror, clinging to life. The underlying question is this: if those of us in this Christian nation truly believe what most of us say we believe, then why does the prospect of death fill us with so much fear? Never mind that this nation is filled with not only Christians, but Jews, Buddhists, atheists and, yes, Muslims. This day was seen by the planners as a battle of faith for two warring religions. By making an ambush attack on unsuspecting civilians, they hoped to flaunt our doubts versus their unshakable confidence. Of course, America soon sought out to prove its worth through a resurgence in a different shade of irrationality, but I digress.

The main thing that I want to point out is that Greengrass foregrounds this theme subtly but intentionally. He also employs the numerous ordinary people on the ground scrambling to save lives not only as a device to provide context, but as a means to make us aware of the countless people who work each day so that we may have an efficient, safe society. There is no need to call them heroes. It is enough that they are decent. United 93 does not paint America as either perfection or corruption incarnate. The portrait is somewhat closer to life: imperfect government, susceptible to the superficial, and yet, possessing a bed rock of good ideas that have served it well. Naturally, United 93 is not a definitive account of 9/11, nor does it aspire to be. It takes one aspect of the day and tells a trustworthy version of the story. Some have called this film cathartic. I don’t think so. If anything, it provides a jumping off point for more discussion, analysis and consternation. Time will tell if United 93 proves to be an ‘important’ film, but I think that there is no question that it is a valuable one.



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