Thursday, September 11, 2008

Queue It Up: United 93

[In recognition of today’s anniversary, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

Writer/director Paul Greengrass can talk all he wants about the importance of his latest film, and about how it comes with the support of its subjects’ families. But the truth of the matter is that there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical about the first Hollywood feature based around the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the movie’s timing – hitting theaters just over four-and-a-half years after the tragic events it chronicles – is only one of them.

Given the unusually fast turnaround from suffering to screen, United 93 brings with it an odor of shameless profiteering – the sense that it’s trying to capitalize on one of the saddest days in our nation’s history. If your gut resembles mine, it’s telling you that this is too much too soon. Especially considering that we spent the first year after 9/11 inundated by its devastating imagery. Especially considering that our president still refers to the attacks on an almost weekly basis. Especially since so many wounds are still healing, even those of Americans like me who were about as removed from the tragedy as possible.

To be sure, United 93 is being released now not because audiences are clamoring for the dramatization of real-life events they haven’t had time to forget but because the filmmakers (including Universal Pictures) want to benefit from being first: either artistically or financially, or both. But if your stomach turns with cynicism, your brain should remind you that if it wasn’t United 93 in late April 2006, it would have been Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center in August, or who knows what else after that. Eventually someone would go here, and here we are.

So for a moment let’s ignore all that surrounds the film and concentrate on what’s inside it. Any movie deserves that, but this one more than most. Because while I have many objections about when United 93 was made, I have few criticisms about how it was made. Gripping, touching, honest and fair, Greengrass’ film is a triumph, almost more because of what it doesn’t do than what it does. Wearing fragile wings of wax, United 93 learns from Icarus and opts for reserve in all the places that Hollywood usually shoots for the stratosphere.

It starts with star power. In this film, there is none. Just about wherever possible, characters are played by their real-life inspirations: air-traffic controllers, military personnel, airline employees. The rest of the time United 93 looks to have been cast using castoffs from History Channel reenactments. There isn’t a single big-name actor to be found, and nothing happens in this movie that suggests that it will launch careers. That’s significant, because it’s one thing for a studio to back a picture that’s without celebrities, but it’s another thing to greenlight a script that doesn’t create any stars either.

With astounding consistency, Greengrass selects nearly-anonymous group storytelling over individual exaltation. Naturally, some characters get a little more face time than others, but Greengrass patently refuses to perpetuate the mainstream media mythmaking that made Todd “Let’s roll” Beamer posthumously famous. United 93 has no handsome superman, no wise guru, no quirky sidekick who delivers witty one-liners. There are no flashbacks or even back-stories to flash back to. Instead, Greengrass treats all the players as equals: no one any more important than the rest, which is as it should be.

That treatment is even extended to the movie’s villains, the four al Qaeda terrorists who highjack the titular flight destined for San Francisco and redirect it toward Washington, DC, with the intent to crash the Boeing 757 into the US Capitol. It might be going a bit too far to suggest that the terrorists are treated sympathetically in this picture, but they are certainly portrayed sincerely: as individuals who firmly believe they are glorifying their god, even if their bloodthirsty methods suggest a more demonic inspiration.

Judging these characters would have been easy. Greengrass resists at every opportunity. Before the terrorists take control of the plane, their leader is shown to be reluctant to begin the assault. Is he scared? Questioning his decision to take the lives of others? Doubting his decision to sacrifice himself? Or merely waiting for the opportune moment? It’s one of many mysteries that the film doesn’t attempt to answer. The in-air events of Flight 93 – which crashed short of its goal in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after a passenger uprising – were written based on in-flight phone calls and cockpit recordings, so Greengrass is forced to approximate quite a bit. But this film succeeds where other historical pictures before it have failed because Greengrass approximates as minimally as possible and as understatedly as possible.

While the media made a hero out of Beamer, Greengrass makes him just another passenger: a guy named Todd, who acts no more heroically than at least half a dozen others. Beamer’s famous “Let’s roll” urging isn’t even issued as some climactic “Remember the Alamo” war cry, just as a snippet of one rambling urging – “Come on, let’s roll, let’s go” – that’s uttered just a bit louder than a whisper to passengers already poised to strike. Whether Beamer actually delivered it that way, I haven’t a clue. Nor does Greengrass. But appreciate that United 93 doesn’t make Beamer any braver an individual – simply because he had a wife to call and a phone with which to call her – than the other 39 people who died unjustly on that flight and might have done as much or more in the fracas to assume control of the plane. (That Beamer’s name appears first among the passengers in the closing credits, I’ll attribute to a boneheaded studio blunder.)

Equally refreshing is the film’s lack of jingoism. You would have allowed a degree of flag-waving, but United 93 engages in almost none. Greengrass recognizes that even though the 9/11 strikes did indeed target Americans, the attacks were, first and foremost, crimes against humanity. That said, it was the triumph of the human spirit rather than anything American that willed passengers and crew on Flight 93 to revolt. However, my pleasure in seeing that recognized is offset by my disappointment that the one dissenting passenger urging nonviolence happens to have a European accent.

But few movies are perfect and this one certainly isn’t. Greengrass’ script is strong but his direction leaves something to be desired. Much of the film looks like it was lit with a flashlight and most of the scenes are shot from behind the heads and over the shoulders of the actors, making it appear that Greengrass is promoting dandruff shampoo when actually he’s trying to keep from glamorizing his subjects. He succeeds at the latter, perhaps all too well: the film works best in its moments of chaos, but it limps in the few occasions when the actors are required to, you know, act.

Still, the collective whole of this movie’s high-powered engine is far greater than the sum of its parts. United 93 works mostly without a score, and it doesn’t need one. The events are heart-pounding enough on their own. Just like a good reporter knows when to get out of the way and let a subject’s quotes tell the story, Greengrass steps back and plays the roll of observer. There are no surprises here. No cliffhanger scenes. No memorable lines of dialogue. No never-before-seen authentic footage. The September 11 that you see here is the one you probably remember. Yet it still feels new.

Or maybe the better word would be fresh. Perhaps it was in part due to seeing the movie on a Friday evening at the end of a long week, but United 93 took every bit of energy I had. The film isn’t bloody or especially violent. It isn’t even all that horrific, considering all the carnage that could have been put to screen and wasn’t. Yet I can’t think of any moviegoing experience that was so difficult for me. Not one. For example, when I walked out of Schindler’s List with tear-stained cheeks in 1993, I was spent. But I admired the filmmaking so much that I knew I’d want to see it again, and I have since, a handful of times. In this case, I’m not so sure. United 93 made me so nauseous that midway through, and for more than 30 minutes afterward, I was craving an air-sickness bag.

It wasn’t even the plane footage that got to me. It was the scenes set in dark rooms illuminated by green flashing lights where air-traffic controllers try desperately to determine why four flights suddenly break radio contact and divert from their original course. At first there is confusion, which is followed by dismay, then panic, then sickening realization and then overwhelming helplessness as one by one the flights just disappear from the radar. Gone. Just like that.

What comes next is shock. And if you’ve moved on with your life since 9/11, this film will make you feel like you haven’t left the events too far behind. Nor should you. Better than anything else, United 93 captures our country’s lack of preparedness for such attacks, not from a military standpoint (although, that too) but an emotional one. We just never thought such large-scale attacks could happen to us. Not here. But in just a few hours, our world image changed. United 93 records history happening.

[“Queue It Up” is a series of sporadic recommendations of often overlooked movies for your Netflix queue.]

Addendum: I have seen United 93 again. Once. It was equally powerful. And, curiously enough, surprisingly so. I’d already written the above review, but somehow I didn’t believe it. Soured by the way 9/11 became a political tool for fear and warmongering, I felt I’d built a wall around myself that would preclude me from emotional investment in a 9/11-based film. The barrier is probably there, but United 93 overcomes it. It was and remains my pick for 2006’s best film.

1 comment:

The Film Doctor said...

Nice review. I found United 93 wrenching too, the closest thing to a film you don't want to watch, but feel obliged to watch, and the emotional impact left me exhausted. I found the scene of everyone getting on the jet quietly effective, because we've all done that mindlessly and complacently enough. In this case, every motion, every fasten-your-seatbelt sign is tinged with ominous dread. And the film is about anonymous Americans becoming heroes, an anachronistic cliche in movies, but Greengrass makes it quietly plausible and realistic.