Ready or not, here it comes. The most horrific moments of America’s most horrific day have played out over and over in news coverage, books, Congressional hearings and even TV movies.
But now they finally move to the big screen. Writer/director Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” – the story of the events on board the last flight hijacked on Sept. 11 – is the first in what is sure to be a long line of movies dealing directly with the events of that tragic day. For the tribute it pays to the fallen, and the precision with which it captures the terror and confusion that prevailed on that infamous day, the film is to be applauded – even if it is lacking on other fronts.
United Airlines flight 93 was – from piecemeal accounts taken from recordings of the ill-fated plane’s last moments and from accounts of victims’ relatives who received cell phone calls during the hijacking – the flight where the terrorists were overpowered by a determined group of heroes. It is, by its very being, a story to be cherished, one to be remembered and recounted; naturally, it is also one for Hollywood to explore.
And explore is what Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”) does. He investigates real-life facts and ascertains as much of the truth as can be found. This is not a stylized account, and certainly not merely “based on” or “inspired by” real events. For better or for worse, for harm or for healing, this film is real events.
Slowly, almost methodically, the film unravels the events of Sept. 11 as they happened in real time. Viewers are subjected first hand to the confusion and mayhem faced by air traffic controllers in New York City, Boston, Washington D.C. and Cleveland. They see the uncertainty faced by officials at the Federal Aviation Agency and the lack of orders that hold back NORAD. And, of course, the viewer is on board for the terror of flight 93, the desperate cries of injured passengers, the tearful goodbyes hushedly relayed to loved ones on plane phones and ultimately, the determined resolution to defeat the hijackers.
“United 93” masterfully handles the emotions America faced on Sept. 11 and tactfully tightropes between telling the story and exploiting it. But, it borders on inept at understanding or evaluating America’s emotions following that day. Then again, perhaps that’s not its purpose. The movie, it seems, is simply a reminder of the day – straight, undiluted, uneditorialized and uncontextualized.
But film is a powerful medium. Films have the power to evoke joy, anguish, hope, inspiration and even anger. No film can ignore the time in which it’s released, even if it’s simply relating an exact account of another time.
This is where “United 93” falls short. As endearing a tribute as it is, it fails to consider the nation’s emotions today. It fails to realize that it is far past the time that we imagine terrorists as faceless, demonic lunatics. It regrettably plays to the innermost fears of America by making the terrorists discernable from the good guys simply by the harsh sounding tones of their language and their repeated, misguided evocations of God. In order to defeat an enemy completely, you must understand it better than it understands itself, not simply live a life of fear, distrust and stereotypes.
Films, in their stylized, often exaggerated way, seek to foster an understanding of events, not simply to recount them. But “United 93,” as Greengrass has repeatedly said, was never meant to offer any such thing. Perhaps there will be a time down the road to explore the American psyche following the terrorist attacks, but Greengrass – for all his belief that the time is right to explore Sept 11 itself – clearly does not believe now is that time.
Let us hope it is not too far down the road.
At the Showcase and Quality 16
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars