Tuesday, May 02, 2006


My biggest fear regarding UNITED 93, which I saw on Sunday, was, frankly, fear of boredom. I'd already seen the A&E and Discovery Channel docudramas about the ill-fated flight and was wondering what a feature film could add to them. As it turns out, nothing. What UNITED 93, written, directed, and co-produced by Paul Greengrass (BLOODY SUNDAY and THE BOURNE SUPREMACY) does is take away, stripping the story to its raw-boned essence. This approach has merit; minus cutaways to victims' families and friends on September 11 and most of the trappings of TV drama (including, of course, commercials and tube-safe language), the film has an utter, inescapable immediacy. But it also has problems.

By now, I feel as if I "know" the participants, like Todd Beamer (the "Let's Roll" guy, a sentiment uttered without any Schwarzenegger swagger here) and Mark Bingham. UNITED 93 (more evocatively titled than the original FLIGHT 93), reintroduces you to them, but the introduction lacks cordiality. With a minimum of title cards, very few people (maybe none?) are properly identified, except in passing, which is in keeping with the film's rationale; in extremis, I'm sure they didn't know who they were, either. We are supposed to identify with the collective as they formulate a plan and execute it, in a remorseless storming toward the cockpit that had me gasping (the film version, itself made quickly, allows for considerably more blood, sweat and grit--and better camera and effects work). It works, but at the expense of specificity. I missed the character details that defined the TV shows and news reports, like, for example, Bingham's homosexuality--they fall outside of the narrow focus of the film, and are off in the periphery. As "faction" (fact and fiction) stories go, UNITED 93 is a lean and strong dramatization, and I'm grateful for any film that keeps an audience fully engaged and off their cellphones and portable devices for the duration. It plays like a superb thriller, not that it would ever have been greenlit (too depressing, etc.). But I learned a lot more about the human element from the TV films; I relate to Beamer, Bingham, and the other victims more readily than to The Sweaty Guy, The Wild-Eyed Guy (Bingham, as played by Cheyenne Jackson, the Elvis character in last season's Broadway flop ALL SHOOK UP), and The Scared Stewardess.

While apolitical in tone, UNITED 93 is not exactly without politics. Much of the film is focused on officialdom, those who did their best (the real-life administrator Ben Sliney, playing himself, could be the next Fred Dalton Thompson, so natural he is) and those in government, who, if not dropping the ball entirely, didn't get it rolling till way too late (not that I can see the outcome being any different; the plane was going to crash somewhere--we are spared its death agonies as the screen fades quickly to black--and a military shootdown would have really torn a battered country apart). I'm surprised the conservatives who have championed the film haven't registered its skepticism toward government reaction and response but, like so much since September 11, this truth has been conveniently sidestepped by our leaders.

Issues. John Powell's music is mostly doomy and elegiac, appropriate for the piece, but why a score at all? [And why the drumming over the end credits?] And if I've seen footage of the destruction of the Twin Towers before on the big screen, I'd suppressed it. But I didn't forget it (as bloviating critics and commentators warn us against, as if) and I must say seeing it as big as life again took me out of the story of Flight 93 for a few minutes as I relived the whole bloody tragedy of that day as I experienced it in my mind. The use of the footage is understandable but counter-productive in a way. That movie, WORLD TRADE CENTER, is coming in August. [For maximum frisson, viewers of this one might want to see it in New York's Battery Park, at the multiplex adjacent to Ground Zero. I saw it on home ground in Brooklyn.]

As for the terrorists, they are presented exactly as their victims; unadorned, with no horns on their head to mark them as the Bad Guys but no grappling with or consideration of their "agenda," either. I have a bone to pick with critic and author David Thomson; as much as I enjoy his contrarian views on movie stars and directors (if only to wind me up) I think he really blew it in his Sunday Times op-ed, "Films of Infamy." Much of it is thoughtful, Times-ian liberalism, hand-wringing over Hollywood's appetite for destruction, a perennial topic for editorial writers.

But Thomson would like to see a different film made ("there would be an equal effort to show the courage of the terrorists (without calling them simply 'evil' or 'insane.'")--as if the great THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS or the recent PARADISE NOW never existed, and as if the 9/11 terrorists had any honorable goal in mind other than a war of destruction on "infidels" wherever they live. Five years since and one ongoing, destructive war later, I still don't see any sensible rationale for 9/11 from the perpetrators' side, outside of global anarchy. None has been expressed as the bombings and plotting continue. Their moral "courage" eludes me. What nobler sentiment does Thomson see in a potential "Osama Bin Laden Story"? "The history of terrorism--and it includes the independence of this country--is that in the end you have to understand the grievance of the aggrieved, whether you agree with it or not," he concludes. "That film has still to come."

In this conflict, however, the terrorists, while big on explosions, have yet to provide a script with a recognizable human element. That may be a failing of UNITED 93, but I understand why the filmmakers made their choice. Al Qaeda, in contrast, is not volunteering much in the way of feel-good, or get-behind-us, sentiment. We are in the dark, and I don't mean the dark of the movie theater. The terrorists changed the course of history on September 11 and put us all in development hell, with no third-act windup in sight. I think David Thomson has gone out on a limb, and fallen right out of the tree.

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