Sunday, June 04, 2006

My perverse reaction to UNITED 93

I fully respect people, notably those who had friends or relatives die in the attack, who object to the making of movies about 9/11. However, I believe that there are no boundaries to what art can take as its subject. Moreover, if ever there were a director who could come to this material with confidence-inducing credentials, Paul Greengrass is that director. He has produced outstanding documentaries that approach controversial, politically-charged material with sensitivity and objectivity. This is notably the case with his Golden Bear-winning documentary about the Northern Irish troubles, BLOODY SUNDAY. Furthermore, interviews suggest that Greengrass was at pains to produce a movie without offending anyone and that did full service to all involved in the events. This was to be a faithful testament of the events of 9/11 rather than a blockbuster action movie.

Paul Greengrass has stayed true to his aims. What we have here is just under two hours of cinema that tries to document the unfolding events on 9/11 through the prism of the flight UNITED 93. For the first third of the movie we see the crew and passengers board UNITED 93, but most of the focus is on the air traffic controllers who realise that American 11 has been hijacked. We see them perform brilliantly under pressure – tracking the plane into New York airspace, and then lose it – only to look up and visually see smoke pouring out of the World Trade Center. The second third of the movie focuses on the reactions of the air traffic controllers and the military as they see another plane go into the World Trade Center and realise that they have a full-on attack on their hands. You get the feeling that while air traffic control worked brilliantly to track the suspected and actual hijacked planes, the military, despite all good intentions, were hamstrung by the lack of speed with which the rules of engagement were established as well as a shortage of armed fighter planes. In the meantime, UNITED 93 is hijacked. In the final third of the film, attention is focused on the events inside the plane. The passengers realise that the pilots are not flying the plane. They also realise that they are not in the midst of a conventional hijacking, where it makes sense to co-operate, but a suicide mission. Passengers make emotional goodbyes to their relatives and some of the men bravely storm the hijackers and break into the cockpit. Their aim is to get one of the passengers, who has some experience as a pilot, into the cockpit and to somehow land the plane safely.

The film is scripted, acted, photographed and edited in a manner which makes it feel like a docu-drama. There is no attempt to contextualise the events – to explain why the terrorists are doing what they are doing. There is no attempt to give background information to the characters or to create archetypal heroes. The air traffic controllers are just ordinary guys doing a great job under pressure. Ditto the military. Similarly, Greengrass knows that hearing people say goodbye to their families on a cellphone on a plane the audience knows is about to go down is visceral material. We don’t need it to be amp’ed up with conventional block-buster devices.

However, the movie is not the “pure” testament that some reviewers have alleged. There are subtle directorial choices that do “amp up” the tension. For a start, the film has a full orchestral score that is used to push our emotional reactions further and faster – especially in the final scene of the film. Where there is a lush chord at the end, I would have preferred a respectful silence. Moreover, while the movie is objective, insofar as it tells how communication lines broke down between the FAA, the military and the air traffic controllers, it is not neutral. After all, there is an explicit criticism there of the difficulty of getting through to the President for one. I have no problem with this, but I think it is worth mentioning.

Now we move to the more difficult part of the review: my own reactions to the film. I actually toyed with not writing this part at all, for my reactions were perverse, and I suspect, way out on a limb. They may say more about me than about the movie. However, for what it is worth, here is a summary of my reactions to UNITED 93.

First, does the movie work as a straightforward testament to the events? I think that the answer for most viewers is “yes”, and I largely agree. However, three things jarred. First, the use of an orchestral score, which I mentioned before, did not sit well with me, especially in the closing moments of the picture. Second, there is one line of dialogue, uttered by the guy in charge of air traffic which seemed to me a little bit of a Hollywood-epiphany “duh, duh, daaaah!!” moment. After the planes go into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, this guy takes the brave decision to ground all air traffic and to let no planes from other countries enter US airspace. This is brave because it will cost billions and is sure to get him into trouble with the airlines. However, he says he is justified in taking such an extreme action because “we are at war with someone”. Now, this seems a remarkably prescient and portentous line of dialogue. Maybe the guy really did say it. Either way, it felt a bit “Hollywood” and conspicuous to me. Third, in general Greengrass did well to cast a bunch of unknown actors in this movie, so that none of the passengers are “characters” played by famous actors. This adds to the docu-drama feel of the movie. However, anyone who watches a bunch of TV or cinema will immediately recognise the character actor playing the passenger who organises the counter-attack on the hijackers. Because I recognised this one actor as an “actor” he was conspicuous, and that brought me out of the movie.

Is it enough for this movie to be a straightforward testament? While I am convinced that UNITED 93 is as respectful a movie as one could hope for given the material, I found myself wondering whether it was enough for a movie to be a respectful memorial. Greengrass has made the decision not to contextualise or interpret or explain anything. I can understand this. For imposing a structure or an explanation is a hazardous task. However, what we are left with a move which I found to be an unedifying experience. Quite simply, as I had read the 9/11 Commission Report, it added nothing to my understanding of the events. Given the concept of the movie, we were never going to learn anything about the motivations of the terrorists, which for me, was the key question I wanted to know about after the attack. While one of the hijackers, Ziad Jarrah, looks nervous before the event, we never know why. To that end, I found the UK TV drama,
HAMBURG CELL far more incisive and compulsive viewing.

Which brings me to my final and most fundamental difficulty with this movie: by refusing to go beyond a straight re-telling of the events, Greengrass has made a movie that seemed to me to be voyeuristic. After all, 9/11 was the first terrorist attack that we saw unfold on live television. Part of my memory of that day – and perhaps of everyone’s memory – was watching the three planes go into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. We seemed to see the footage of the towers collapsing on continuous loop. What we did not have until the release of this film was a comparable visual image burned onto our retinas of the fourth plane crashing into a field. We have that now. What’s more we do not have a spectator’s view of the plane crashing but a cockpit view.

This made me feel deeply uncomfortable. What is it that compels us to watch such footage? To need to see these events explicitly re-enacted – to create the “full set” of images? And to that extent, one wonders not if it was “right” to make such a movie but whether it was necessary. I resent the implication of the marketing that we can’t feel something unless we see it. There seems to be some kind of masochistic hype surrounding this movie: it will help us feel/empathise with the horrofic events as they unfurled. Well, unlike many in the cinema, I did not cry and I did not feel any more empathy/sympathy with those poor people than I did before entering the cinema. Again, I am sure that I am in the minority here, and that for many this movie was cathartic. It just wasn't for me.

So, I would not particularly recommend this movie to anyone unless they feel that they have not got a clear understanding of the timeline of events of the morning or that they are in need of catharsis. Those of us seeking understanding of what drove the terrorists to attack the US would be better off watching HAMBURG CELL or THE ROAD TO GUANTANEMO.

UNITED 93 is already on release in the US, UK, Germany and Austria. It opens in France on July 12th 2006 and in Australia on August 17th.


  1. You wonder what the reaction of the familys' were to the film. They've lost their loved ones and seen them (vaguely?) depicted in what you've said is a "voyeuristic" film. What's the function of the film? Obviously not entertainment; you've said there's no attempts to explain the context and the reasons of the hi-jack. So why does the movie exist?

    I agree with the fact that art (and of course that includes cinema) can't shirk from difficult subjects, especially recent and still relevant events, but does it shed any light on these events? Or does it simply tell a story and leave you no wiser to why the events of 9/11 happened.

  2. The thing is that the decision not to contextualise is done with the best intentions. But what you are left with is a vehicle for catharsis: there is a bizarre subconscious need to have an image that "completes the set" and enable mourning...? It makes me feel queasy. Plus recognising the main actor made me feel like I was watcing a high-end TV docu-drama.

  3. That's the point: was the film made with the idea that it would be a cathartic experience for an audience? If so, surely it must be only an American audience? I know I watched the footage of 9/11 and felt phyiscally sick from the sheer horror of it, but I'm doubting that going to see a "dramatised" (if that's fair) account of what happened on that fateful day, would change my feelings about it.

  4. Enough respect Bina007 - excellent review, in fact I'm not even going to bother reviewing this now as so I'll just put a link over from my film blog: Darkmatters.
    BTW - I love your blog, your writing style and general attitude make me smile... In fact if I wasn't already happily married with kids and an expensive console gaming and DVD habbit to support then I'd probably want to run away with you!?
    My day job is in London - if you ever want to check out a film together or compare notes on something e.g. Hard Candy? over a coffee or whatever, then let me know...
    Peace out

  5. Aw, shucks! Cool, next time I'm in town and there's a cool flick on hand I'll mail you.

  6. Ah Matt - its good to see that your using the internet for what its meant to be - flirting with strangers... Tho I must agree that this is a rather good film site. I'm a bit upset that you've invited someone else to see Hard Candy with you other than me your mentee?!!