Making Sense of Tragedy: Step One
Chances are slim the average viewer -- those with no intimate, personal connection -- will find solace watching this visceral recreation of what transpired aboard the fourth airliner hijacked on 9/11. And it's hard to see how intellectual catharsis is possible for anyone who watches United 93.
Five years seems to be a respectful interval, but whether or not it's too soon by some measure, the raw docudrama doesn't offer enough insight to make reliving that fateful day a positive experience. It's too soon because we don't learn enough, which isn't to say that complete sense can ever be made of the maelstrom.
Don't get me wrong, United 93 is an important, even necessary film -- and one that's extremely well done for the most part. Yet precisely because it's so effective at chronicling the terror and conjuring the dread, it's too jarring and painful to recommend to a wide audience. The best advice a critic can give is: proceed with caution.
My reservations don't stem from concern over the fragile emotional state of moviegoers, a desire not to pierce our escapist cocoon. Admittedly, I was deflected by the painful nature of what happens and many others will be made queasy in a deep, existential way. But my unease has to do with the movie's docudrama nature. It raises many more questions than it answers, and not chiefly about the accuracy of what it depicts. (I'm not challenging the basic veracity of the account let alone endorsing any conspiracy theory.) It left me hungry for a more fictional piece that delves into the events without being bound by the facts, so to speak. Clarification is the silver lining I was seeking, and there simply isn't one.
British writer-director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) achieves his primary aim of offering a tribute to heroism. The passengers and crew aboard the Boeing 757 bound for San Francisco from Newark, and hijacked by four Islamic militants for a kamikaze assault on Washington, D.C., deserve to be honored and respected. Even if they didn't actually cause the plane go down in rural Pennsylvania, they displayed bravery that ought to be acknowledged and praised. Their relatives are justified in viewing United 93 as a celluloid monument.
We didn't see their situation unfold on CNN like the collapse of the Twin Towers. Is experiencing it in this second-hand manner meaningful beyond empathy? Are there lessons that make the often excruciating film more than a valedictory salute? We do learn that the civilian and military authorities were totally baffled and basically paralyzed. (Note to conspiracy theorists: the Air Force was too disorganized to have shot it down.) The heroic selflessness of the passengers and crew is contrasted with the confusion and impotence on a systemic, institutional level -- some individuals were attuned to the severity. Key agencies were incredulous and failed to communicate and share vital information in a timely manner. But all this we know from the 9/11 Commission report.
If there's a broader motif, it's that you cannot always rely on government or the authorities to save you. In extraordinary situations and times of crisis, citizens must take matters into their own hands. Individuals must obtain information, assess it, make decisions, persuade others to join them, and then act. A film that took more liberties with the facts could delve into such themes more deeply.
True to his intentions, Greengrass offers a movie that is free of judgment and politics. The hijackers are depicted as afraid and their leader conflicted. They are human beings and there's no discussion of their cause. Thus, United 93 represents a naļve, pre-9/11 posture about simmering cultural and political conflict. The happy-go-lucky pre-flight attitude of everyone except the hijackers is eerie. The build-up to the action is harder to watch than the mid-air mayhem, especially as contrasted with what's happening in New York as the first airplane hits the Trade Center. It's almost a relief when the foreboding ends and grim reality sets in.
From a technical perspective, United 93 is good if not great. Some of the pre-crisis dialogue is conspicuously mundane and forced. This is partly attributable to the fact that a few of the actual ground participants, most noticeably FAA manager Ben Sliney and some Newark air traffic controllers, portray themselves. On the other hand, the movie's percussive score and first-rate editing are totally professional. And Greengrass deserves praise for avoiding any hint of exploitative melodrama. For example, "Let's roll" is not a bombastic rallying cry as much as it is a prayerful aside and line of self-encouragement.
Without offering any major insight into the tragedy, United 93 is a useful artifact for the present day and will have utility in years to come. It's a good first step. We can only hope it will be joined by other films and artworks that go further and try to process, interpret and comment on the events of 9/11.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "R" for language and some intense sequences of terror and violence.)