Thursday, April 20, 2006

United 93

Written and directed by Paul Greengrass
Universal Pictures

United 93 opens April 28.

I don't think there's someone at Universal sitting behind a large conference table, smoking a big cigar, and reflecting quietly, "We can get a lot of butts in the seats with a story about United 93." But still, I'm sure, Universal wants this to succeed at the box office. Perhaps I am naive, but maybe if this picture is a success, it will garner more pride from the filmmakers for the work they put into the picture rather than the financial gain. If that's the case, I'm sure the men and women behind this already feel like they have succeeded.

With no stars and no big special effects, director Paul Greengrass, who made the incredible Bourne Supremacy, takes us through the routine morning that was 9/11 that turned into one of the most surreal days on record. The film is as intense as movies ever get--created purely by dialogue and visuals--an unnerving lack of music except in the most necessary moments, even then minimalist in nature.

Movies are three acts, but it could be said that this movie has six, three in one half and three in the last. The first half of the movie concentrates, first, on the ho-hum routine--also gripping in its creepy way, and also the confusion as American Airlines 11 doesn't respond to air traffic controllers. Act 2 of the first half is about the disbelief most people on the ground have that there's even a hijacking taking place--an event that apparently had not occurred for 40 years prior over American soil, a disbelief that exposes the unpreparedness of the people in charge. Then there's the heart-stopping moment where the little blip on the radar that is AA11 disappears off the screen "somewhere over Manhattan."

When the United 175 plane, the one that became the signature image of the entire 9/11 news day, hits the South tower, the movie then focuses harder on the events of United 93, the plane that became almost an afterthought during that day, the one that didn't hit its target and so therefore wasn't anything we as a shocked nation could really grab onto in the face of mass chaos going on in New York and later the Pentagon. United 93, as has been documented heavily, probably would have hit its target if it were not for a delay before takeoff. The other planes hit their targets and it had long been a news story before 93 got into trouble, so the passengers were informed from their family members via air phones and cell phones of what had happened, leading to an uprising that has now spawned two movies.

While the A & E "Flight 93" focused on the family members below, and what they were going through, in addition to the passengers themselves--United 93 completely erases scenes of those family members--it focuses on the passengers, and them talking on the phones to their loved ones--good or bad, you can decide for yourselves. One thing cannot be disputed however--the lack of cutting back and forth between passenger and loved one gives the picture a heart-pounding intensity, which is consistent throughout. I personally think it would have been a mistake to add melodrama to events already in the stratosphere of drama.

It is also consistent with the entire movie--the film only cuts away once to show us a plane crashing into the WTC, the file footage we have burned in our memories--so there are no full-scale model recreations of each crash. Believe me, it's far more impactful this way. Whatever it is that we enjoy about action movies, the adrenaline release when we see huge explosions, is not given to us here, and it kept me completely on edge throughout. It has one of the most haunting final images you will ever see.

This movie is an exercise as to whether you can possibly even blink during the proceedings. In that way, it is much like the day that was 9/11 itself, as we watched CNN and Fox News or whatever for any information we could possibly get. 9/11, for me, will always be tied to a video deposition I was at that morning. As I set up video equipment, and did my usual thing (which is the most unnerving aspect of both 93 movies), the world was going through drastic changes, and one of my regrets about that day is that I wasn't watching it unfold in front of me. I had to be told of what happened, even though I was awake at the time. In some ways, I guess I felt like I should be doing something or should have done something--I really didn't understand at all why the deposition, which took place later, was even taking place at all. I sat, listening to a guy who was acting as his own lawyer, talk about how he was discriminated against while working at certain fast food chains, and a day that was about as surreal as it gets got even...more surreal.

And I too couldn't get enough information when I got home and started watching the news, and in a way, I feel a little guilty about that. Are they going to find tapes of the Pentagon crash? Are there going to be more angles of the other crashes? Recently, I watched Grizzly Man on The Discovery Channel and afterwards, people who knew Timothy Treadwell, the man who lived with bears and was eventually killed by one, talked about the film. There is an audio tape of he and his girlfriend's death, one that director Werner Herzog listens to and refuses to include in the movie. One of the big controversies of that picture is why wasn't it included and so forth, and one of Treadwell's friends remarks, "I don't understand the morbid curiosity people have with that tape." I believe the answer lies in the fact that no one knows what death is like, you can't experience it and tell the tale later, and therefore, many of us want to experience the perspective without experiencing the results. Yeah, maybe just to see what it's like.

Of course, it's like an addictive drug because we'll never really know what it's like, but we keep trying to find out.

How does United 93 compare to other films? I wrote The Texas Chainsaw Massacre earlier this morning--if you've seen the last five minutes of that movie, that's the intensity this movie matches for its entire duration. The finale of TCM has a woman strapped to a chair and screaming, as we get close-ups of her twitching eyeballs. I'd also like to compare this movie to Pearl Harbor and Titanic. For good or ill, those movies based pop entertainment on real disasters--one man's misfortune is another's entertainment. I think we draw those conclusions in too much of a black-and-white way, however. I don't think we have a word in the English language, and there's probably not one in any language, that describes what our fascination is with real horror--the kind where we are "entertained" by something that is horrible and really happened. I think it would be wrong to call it morbid curiosity--a phrase that suggests that we're on the precipice of orgasm to watch something awful. I couldn't possibly invent a word that makes sense on this level, but maybe we should try.

And so then, I think of The Passion of the Christ. Here's the difference: In The Passion, the film dared you to keep watching. United 93 dares you to look away.

Recommendations? I would recommend United 93, just based purely on skilled filmmaking. It's one of the best examples there is. But feelings run amok--are you someone who wants to completely forget that day? Because this movie will make you feel all those things again. If you'd rather not pay good money to see a dramatization (and again, that's black-and-white labeling because I don't feel it captures what this movie is) of horrible, real events--then you probably shouldn't. It's an emotional experience. Use caution.


At 4/20/2006 04:36:00 PM, Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

Good review .. I do play to see this, but mostly out of respect for Mr. Greengrass

At 4/20/2006 04:47:00 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Yeah, well, you won't be disappointed. This guy knows what he's doing.

At 4/20/2006 10:11:00 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

It will be interesting to see the reviews of this thing when it's opened next week. Will critics that really didn't like it give it a pass in hopes of a secured job in the future. I doubt it will be taken that seriously, but talk about critic proof. But what do I know, I cited "Passion of the Christ" as being the worst movie of 2004. And the reason being because despite whatever emotion it spurred from the deeply religious section of the Country (Or World, I guess) it was a very bad and very boring film. I can usually put all personal feelings aside and look at something as what it is, the next film in this actor's or director's filmography. But I don't know if that will be the case here. This will be a tough one to make it through, or at least that's the feeling I get. But I'm curious as hell to see it.

At 4/21/2006 12:38:00 AM, Blogger Matthew S. Urdan said...

Hey, did you hear Titanic II is coming out this summer? Read all about it here:

At 4/21/2006 01:39:00 PM, Blogger Amy said...

From what I have heard and read, most critics like the movie. Jimmy Carter on WSMV points out that some of the familes that lost someone on 9/11 liked the movie and were for it being made. He also mentioned that it almost comes across as a documentery, using real traffic controllers and no name actors. I really want to see it, just so I can see how it was all pieced together (from phones calls, messages, etc.). I think this movie will be worth going to and although some may think it is too soon. . .I really hope that we can see this movie and realize that it could happen again. We have been really lucky in this country to not have been attacked on our ground until '93. I am just afraid that we will forget the lessons learned and it will happen all over again.


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