Going in, I had two very different feelings about the project. On one hand, I was desperately afraid the movie was going to be "disaster porn," just a big fat, cheesy emotional catharsis filled with trite Hollywood platitudes. I was afraid the movie would serve no purpose other than to incite further hatred and transform the real men and women of that horrid day into flawless superheroes rather than what they were: ordinary Americans who struggled valiantly and purposefully to stay alive in a desperate, horrible situation. I just couldn't bear to hear "Let's Roll" transformed into a cheesy tag-line, a silly one-liner like one Bruce Willis, Sly Stallone or Ahnold would have spouted in their 1980s action flicks.
Yet on the other hand, I also had the distinct impression that it was nothing less than my patriotic - and sacred - duty as an American to see this film. To attempt to understand, at least on some level, what it was like for the few Americans who faced terrorism up close and directly...and fought back tooth-and-nail (and as the film makes clear, with not much but their sense of courage...and desperation...)
To my relief, the film is anything but cheesy or manipulative. I've written on these pages before how I decry the new Hollywood ethos that passes for "style." Simply put, this new "style" means landing a herky-jerky camera in front of actors and instead of relying on film grammar or carefully constructed scripts with genuine character-building, simply shaking the camera to make the events feel "immediate." It passes for style on 24 (a show I love...) and which nicely reflects the "real time" You-Are-There aesthetic the series creators aim for. It's used on Battlestar Galactica too (which appropriated the visual conceit from Firefly.) Basically, the shaky cam can serve as a short-cut for untalented directors vetting weak material. But the technique is so visually powerful, it nonetheless makes us "feel" close to the events on screen. Even if such closeness isn't really merited.
This is precisely the style of United 93, but yet here it works in spades. The film evidences no other agenda than to deposit the audience into seats aboard that doomed plane; and also into the various (and wretched) levels of bureaucracy (the FAA, NORAD, flight towers, ATC centers) that utterly failed to protect our citizens. By doing so, we thereby experience the disarray, horror, chaos, confusion and pain of September 11th.
The film often consists primarily of extreme-close-ups, which literally make viewers feel like we're sitting next to an air traffic controller or a passenger on the flight. And these actors aren't beautiful and pristine, either. We see their stubble and blotches and bad teeth up-close. They feel like "real" people. Again, the sense of reality is heightened in admirable, merciless fashion. United 93 is beautifully constructed as an immersive experience and I dare say it's actually the best film of the year thus far.
There's no movie B.S. on hand, and traditional film grammar (like high angles representing "doom") would have pulled audiences out of the experience and merely reminded them that this is carefully erected artifice. Old fashioned film style would have simply distanced viewers from the passengers on Flight 93, and so it's appropriate that Greengrass instead relies on the old herky jerky and extreme close-ups to foster immediacy. The style works, it doesn't feel pretentious, and it isn't forced.
In fact, at times there's a direct cinema, or cinema verite atmosphere about the film. When Greengrass isn't marshaling the unsteadicam, he's willfully focusing on little details that help us understand the experience of that day. We watch as people go through metal detectors, and as maintenance men fuel a plane. At take off, there's no thunderous music or CGI effects; in fact, the camera "corrects" itself (in extreme telephoto mode) to capture a glimpse of the plane's nose as it ascends in mid air. The feeling - absolutely indicative of cinema verite - is life unfolding before us; not a drama already mapped, scripted, edited and made "artistic."
By using unfamiliar actors (and in the case of the control rooms, some of the real participants...), by utilizing cinema verite techniques, but also keeping the tension high with the deployment of the herky-jerky camera, Greengrass admirably drains all Hollywood bullshit out of his movie. Or at least most of it. What his steadfast, blunt approach grants audience is an honest view of the men and women in the control rooms; and on the doomed flight. This is meant as no disrespect to any family members of the dead, but they are all depicted here as -- surprise -- very human, down to flaws and foibles. They are tearful and scared, but also determined and clinging to hope. When push comes to shove in the film, and the passengers have to make a choice, they make the only choice they can. It's not the choice to "defeat the terrorists" as some propagandists would have us believe. These people aren't soldiers; they weren't (knowingly) fighting an ideological war. They choose to strike back because they simply want to survive. Yes, they no doubt saved the Capitol Building in the process of striking back. But United 93 makes clear that a political victory was not the foremost thought in the minds of those who fought. Like each and every one of us...they just wanted to live; to beat death. To see their families and loved ones again. To continue existing on this mortal coil.
In the end, that's what makes United 93 such a powerful and emotional drama. There's a point in the film when it's clear to the passengers that they are not going to survive this if they don't do something, and fast. Sure, there's one appeasing European (a Frenchman or Swede), who thinks they should just listen to the terrorists...a right-wing jibe at Old Europe, I guess. But for the most part, the passengers on United 93 get it together and - in a heart-breaking sequence - communicate for the last time (by phone) with the ones they love.
Let me tell you, no trained screenwriter in his or her right mind would ever write a scene this precise manner for your average fictional Hollywood film. It's a sequence in which teary men and women (and we don't know their names, even...) simply say "I love you" (or variations thereof) again and again. It's repetitive and it's just not the stuff of your typical drama. (It doesn't move the story along, some know-it-all script doctor would tell us!)
But it's a beautiful and honestly crafted moment nonetheless. And again, one devoid of formulaic crap. Because at this juncture, the passengers on board Flight 93 have realized that their chances are not good. The simple and most essential thing they can tell their families is - I love you. By repeating that mantra again and again, and with different characters (of vastly different ages and stripe), Greengrass lets us experience the universal humanity of these men and women that all the the government myth-making in the universe just doesn't. The passengers were scared to death, and making their peace. And the only thing that mattered to them as they undertook the seemingly impossible task of taking back a jet liner in flight...was their connection to other human beings; it was their love. It was communicating that love.
I will never diminish the fact that these people struck back against terrorists in a terrible situation and prevented the destruction of Congress, but I truly honor these mortals more as human beings who were forced to understand and synthesize unpleasant, grotesque truths in a woefully short amount of time. They responded to that new "reality" with surprisingly little denial and enough grace and guts to do something. To fight for their lives. When the terrorists claim that Americans are weak...they're wrong. The Sleeping Giant metaphor, for me at least, always seems to hold.
Greengrass does get in one very dramatic and artistic point via the auspices of traditional "film grammar," and in particular, it involves the art of cross-cutting. As the situation quickly goes from bad to worse on Flight 93, the Americans pray to their (presumably...) Christian God in the passenger rows, while in the cockpit, the Terrorist pilot simultaneously prays to his Muslim God. These prayers are balanced directly against one another by the technique of the cross-cut - which binds and connects the two images. Two sides of the same coin, and all that.
Both sides are praying to God...and both sides - eventually - lose. God doesn't intervene. The Americans don't survive, and the Islamic Terrorists don't succeed in their destructive plans. In this case, what the film says, I suspect, is that it's well past time for humans to stop relying on prayer when crises occur. It's wrong for Terrorists to invoke the name of their God when they fly planes into buildings and kill hundreds of innocent people. It's equally wrong to invoke the name of God when justifying the invasion of a foreign country, and killing thousands of innocent civilians. It's dangerous, on either side, to believe that our purpose coincides with God's purpose. I've written this before on these pages, but if there is a God, humans can never know his/her purpose, and it is downright dangerous to follow those who believe they have the Almighty's Ear. It's time for a new morality in this country and in the world at large, one where soldiers and leaders don't judge themselves morally "superior" because they think they know what God wants. To me, that doesn't make them righteous...it makes them insane. If that's the way we're going to choose our leaders from here on out, then we are no better than the terrorists who attacked us on September 11th.
Another controversial point here - and I'm ready for the inevitable brickbats from readers who can't detect shades of gray but wish only to box the world into stark black-and-white -but Greengrass depicts the terrorists in United 93 as human beings too. They're scared, fragile creatures...like the rest of us. Doing what they believe is their God's will. They sweat, they bleed...they make mistakes. But this is the important thing, they are not monsters or aliens. They are not Cylons, Romulans, Daleks or Zombies. They are us, to steal a handy phrase from George A. Romero. They are the same breed, living on the same planet, breathing the same air, only twisted by religious fanaticism to "hate" those they deem enemies. I despise and curse the terrorists who attacked us on September 11, 2001. But I also hate those who have used it for political gain and to wage war on the innocent. "Terrorist" is not a synonym for "alien" or "inhuman." If we assume it is, we've already lost.
The simple, undeniable fact is that the men and women on Flight 93 were Democrats and Republicans. They were liberals and conservatives. They were black and white, straight and gay. They were Americans, and they knew - probably before the vast majority of Americans did - that the world had suddenly changed on September 11. But could they have known...and what would they think today ...about everything that's happened to America since that time? After their hard-fought battle, what would they think of their fellow Americans now? Of wire-taps without court approval? Of secret prisons? Of prisoner abuse? Of differing viewpoints squelched out of misguided "patriotism? Of truth-tellers punished as "leakers?" Is that "why they fought?" on that sunny day in September? So that America would struggle forever in an unending war on "Terror?" The innate heroism of those passengers, I believe, illuminates the moral cowardice of this country, today. Forsaking liberty for security. Bargaining away freedom for fear of being labeled unpatriotic.
United 93 brings up so many emotions, but it is not an overtly political film, despite my last paragraph. That was simply my reaction to it. I would also be lying if I failed to tell you something else. I felt a deep-seated bloodlust when the passengers fought back and killed the terrorists. I wanted to see those hijackers suffer and die. The hijackers deserve a million Hells for a million eternities...but I sometimes fear Americans are facing the same fate. I don't want that to be our destiny too. Because then the pitched clash on United 93 wasn't the first battle over American ideals in this war, it was the last.
This may be the bottom line: You'll walk out of United 93 and get to return to your daily life. You'll go shopping, eat at a restaurant, or go home and hug your loved ones, your spouse or kids. These are the simple but essential pleasures of human life that have been forever denied the men and women who unsuspectingly boarded Flight 93. These passengers struggled and fought and cried and shook and wondered why...and we must certainly honor every minute of their struggle. If not for political reasons, then for human ones. They have been denied what we cherish. And if we become "them" in another skirmish, if we find ourselves in a similar situation...we must all hope we can respond with such grace. Even amidst the tears.