Wednesday, June 07, 2006


A Film Review Of 'United 93'

A couple weeks ago, my mate and I got a three-day job handing out leaflets and sticking up posters for 'United 93' around Manchester. I was kind of expecting people to react to this, either positively or negatively. In the end, only one person commented on what the film was we were advertising, rather than on the mere fact we were giving out free film tickets. He was a Canadian fellow who looked to be on what Aerosmith might call a 'Permanent Vacation', who insisted that the film was 'propaganda for the American government.'

I'm a twit, so I managed to forget to order my free ticket, and had to join the punters paying today. I'm quite glad I did - I think I'd probably have felt a bit shabby getting in on a freebie.

I would venture to suggest that there hasn't been quite so much pressure on a filmmaker to 'get it right' for quite some time. 9/11 has acquired something of a totemic state in western culture - no matter how big the events were, what they symbolise is something bigger - kind of like a negative version of the demolition of the Berlin wall. The protests came thick and fast to start with, as people wondered how anybody could dream of making money out of such an event.

I disagree with this attitude. In my humble, no tragedy should ever be beyond the boundaries of representation. Cinema offers its spectators a privileged view that news media doesn't, and mostly this view consists of the ability of cinema to generate empathy, in a way that an impersonal news report never can. It obviously also helps considerably that it can show the events leading up to the tragedy, and the tragedy itself, instead of just the aftermath, divorced from any context that might give it meaning. Anyway, I'm suspicious of people who claim that any money made out of 9/11 is particularly immoral, since I read somewhere the other day that the widow of the ringleader of the passenger's fightback has trademarked his cry of 'let's roll' and sold it to Wal-Mart and the Florida State University football team, or some such august institution.

So, what of the film? Clearly with a film of this nature, you are hardly likely to enjoy what you see on the screen, so the films relative value or otherwise has to be seen through its importance, which is a difficult and nebulous concept. I have to disagree with the Canadian - divorcing for a moment gut reaction, I believe that the film offers a fair and balanced look at the events of the day. Some have gone so far as to say too balanced; I don't agree. Director Paul Greengrass has a track record of making films that record events, and forswear making easy and pat judgements. It would have been easy to make the film a jingoistic cry for muscular American nationalism. It would have been much harder, but still not impossible, to make a film purporting to address 'root causes' that may or may not have driven the hijackers to it, but both attitudes would have been wrong. They would have placed a wider meaning that doesn't exist on an individual atrocity and an individual act of great courage.

Yet I did have a gut reaction to the film, far away from the political import, and that reaction was fright. I can't really explain it. Not since 'Titanic' has there been a film the outcome of which is in so little doubt, yet I was genuinely tense throughout the whole thing. As the passengers boarded the plane, I was dully saying to myself in my head, 'dead, dead, dead', and yet I found myself somehow believing against every logical faculty that someone, just someone, had to survive.

My initial concern with the concept was that a claustrophobic look at merely the flight would struggle to maintain a sufficient level of interest. After all, even a journey so eventful of this one consisted for a large chunk of its length of nothing abnormal whatsoever, and I couldn't see how this portion of the film could really sustain interest or suspense. What I hadn't realised was how much of the film would be set in various control rooms, as those with the responsibility for making sure planes don't bump into one another inevitably failed to comprehend the scale of the action taking place. If there's just one impression you can't help having in these lengthy scenes, it is an impression of doomed helplessness, of people caught in the middle of the most important day of their working lives who were powerless to significantly alter the course of events.

Finally, I should like to add that the idea of not casting any big names, and using unknown actors, pays handsome rewards. The film remains about the characters, not about the actors. Later this year, we will get 'World Trade Center', Oliver Stone's look at the events of the day, which features several big name actors - Nicolas Cage, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jay Hernandez - will the film manage to avoid being somehow about their portrayals rather than the people they portray? I suppose only time will tell.

Well worth seeing - just don't expect a barrel of laughs.

I shan't watch this movie.
I am cursed with an overdeveloped sense of film empathy, and I'd be willing to bet I'd have a heartattack under the assault of such a relentlessly depressing subject.
I approve of the movie, I approve of what I've heard of its philosophy and methodology.
I just can't watch....
thanks for your thoughts on this. the day i quit getting all teary at photos of the burning towers will be the day i see/rent this film. please note that as a NY-er for most of my life, my emotions come not so much from the initial act itself but from what the day symbolises to me: the day the bush criminals began to truly hijack my country.
And for those with a sense of deep self loathing,
Blimey O'Riley! It looks like the dastardly "bush criminals" have been stockpiling all the United States' supplies of capital letters! Have those fiends no shame??
SafeT - I can understand that position. It was pretty traumatising for me, and after all, it was nothing like so immediate for me.

I have to say I'm glad they avoided spending time on politics of any sort. I've a feeling this presidency will inspire quite a bit of artistic creativity, maybe more than any president since Nixon. All that can come now, once this is out of the way.
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