Heart of Everyday Existence
The questions that come up when discussing United 93, a drama about the only plane out of four hijacked on September 11th that failed to reach its intended target, might be "Is it too soon?" Or "Why now, at not even five years since the tragic event?" Actually, the most basic question might be "Why at all?" After watching the movie, I'm still not sure of the answers, but what I do know is that director Paul Greengrass and his team have put together one very good, effective movie.
Greengrass has placed himself in a very delicate situation; the nation is still sensitive to the events of 9/11/2001, and the idea of making a movie about one of the large-scale heroic acts to emerge from that day would naturally be met with cynicism. Movies prove to be the touchiest of canvases for making artistic statements because the industry is so blatantly and successfully commercial. Yet, I can't imagine that anyone on this project thought they could make much money from United 93. I think most people would probably have qualms about seeing a movie like this because reliving the experience might be too uncomfortable for them.
And these people would be right about that, but what they might not expect is how hope affirming the movie turns out to be. Greengrass cannot afford to turn United 93 into a mawkish, manipulative, jingoistic piece of rah-rah. And thank goodness he doesn't -- this movie is probably the polar opposite of something like, say, Pearl Harbor. It's sober, straightforward, and shot in a familiar documentary style -- handheld cameras, naturalistic performances. With no name actors in any of the roles, Greengrass achieves a height in realism, which is helped along by dialogue that sounds like everyday conversations -- passengers chat about work, where they're going, their immediate plans -- while scenes in the air traffic control towers have the buzz of everyday people doing their jobs.
Such an approach has the effect of turning United 93 into an ode to the everyday individual. The film is a tribute to the constancy and continuity of American life. By placing this flow, this way of life, in a situation where it's threatened, the story draws out the idealism behind it. The air traffic people and the military watch in helpless horror as they steadily realize in slow shock what kind of a day this is turning out to be. One by one, news of the planes striking the buildings creates the tension of dreading reports about even one more. It's at this point that the hostage-held passengers of United 93, upon piecing together through cell phone calls that this is a suicide hijacking, decide to take action. It is an act, both metaphoric and literal, representing how the principles of freedom and the right to carve our own paths in life are at the heart of our everyday life; how these are taken for granted, how they're something we don't think about, and how that is their kindest gift to us. And when these principles are endangered, they form the reserve of strength that people can draw upon, further fueling the raw survival instinct.
Additionally, the movie strips down people's motivations in life to very basic concepts: family, faith, and the possibility of a future. In the course of watching the events unfold, there's a sense that, although we may not all be heading in exactly the same directions, we're all in this together. After watching the movie, people -- just the people around me -- felt more like neighbors, less like strangers.
These kinds of stories have worked on us all along. Normal people facing an unexpected adversity rise to the occasion -- this is an old movie standby. And the plain-faced yet skillful construction of United 93, which builds tension and climbs assuredly to a climax, just emphasizes how well this story continues to work. Think of the recent success of The Lord of the Rings series; this movie generally follows the arc of those types of movies, except we know things don't end happily here. However, it doesn't make the drama any less effective. It shows that we are heartened by heroic acts, no matter what the eventual outcome is; the means justify the ends.
But again, we come back to the question "Why?" I'd like to think Greengrass did it as insurance that no one else would want to make a movie about this event after he directed what he thought was the most honorable version of the story (there'll be no Pearl Harbor-ing this one). I also believe he wanted to pay tribute to and honor the victims while the details were still relatively fresh in our memories. But here's what I think will happen: United 93 is going to turn into a memento. Fifty years from now, imagine it being revisited, by new generations, college kids, our children and grandchildren, who otherwise wouldn't be able to place in real context what the events of that day felt like, and what it meant to learn about one of the hijacking missions being foiled, and how that gave us even a tiny inkling of hope to latch on to, to be proud of. This might be the closest they'll be able to come to knowing all these things. The story will become myth and legend; and, when done well in a film like United 93, pure power.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "R" for language and some intense sequences of terror and violence.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.