Saturday, March 10, 2007

1. United 93

Slate's Dana Stevens, who gave the only wholly negative review of United 93, wrote: "[Director Paul] Greengrass' exquisite delicacy and tact toward all sides — the surviving families, the baffled air-traffic controllers, even the hijackers themselves — began to smack of political pussyfooting. What is Greengrass actually trying to say about 9/11? ... Why was this film made, and why was it made now?" Manohla Dargis asked the same thing in The New York Times. She goes on: "I think we need something more from our film artists than another thrill ride and an emotional pummeling. 'United 93' inspires pity and terror, no doubt. But catharsis? I'm still waiting for that."

From Greengrass' audio commentary on the United 93 DVD: "We wanted to create a film that allowed an audience to walk through 9/11 at eye level — that that would give us some basis for evaluating this enormously important event. That's what drove us separately to come together and try to make this film. ... These events happened. They must have looked something like this. And they drive our world today. ... That's why when people say, 'Is it too soon?,' I say, 'It's high time.' It's high time we went back to the events of 9/11 and explored what happened, try to see what went on, what happened. Because it's the most important event in our lifetime. Everything that's happened stems from it. And unless we find the courage to look at it closely, how can we possibly find the answers?"

Movies can do two things. They can say something and/or they can transport us somewhere. United 93 does the latter. So I greet the aforementioned criticism with a furrowed brow. Surely a professional critic should recognize that movies need not take a pronounced political stance to be worth a damn. Greengrass, his editors and his exquisite cast grab hold of us and put us on that plane. As macabre as it sounds, this is a gift. Movies are our most sensate medium. We use them to experience worlds and lives beyond our own. I see value in having a filmmaker take me into the cabin of United Flight 93 — the setting of one of the most mysterious and dramatic moments in U.S. (and human) history — even if it is a creative construction that, although meticulous, is impossible to verify in full.

Manohla Dargis did not experience a catharsis. I'm not sure if I did either. But I'm also not sure if that's the point. This is a movie through which we can bear witness to sacrifice. In my original reaction, I agreed with the Passion of the Christ comparison. These movies exist for us to share in the agony and adrenaline of lionized figures. The passengers were quickly deemed "heroes." They failed to take control of the plane, but they succeeded in saving us unsuspecting earthbound targets. Heroic, yes. The movie does not name these characters, though (during the final half hour, one passenger calls a stewardess simply, "Stewardess." I'm sure there was no time or psychological space for introductions). These were people reacting to a threat, as animals would, and then binding together to assail that threat. There were no individuals. There are also no backstories. No cutaways to distraught family members on the ground. All the emotion is organic. Most affecting are the phone calls — factually documented and transcribed — that were made as people realized they needed to get their affairs in order. One woman calmly relays the combination of her safe deposit box to her daughter. Most express their love simplistically; it's shattering to see how careful the passengers were to not give their grounded relatives any dash of hope; they knew the situation was very bleak. There is value in having this dramatized. It happened. It's important.

Emotional content aside, United 93 is a stunning demonstration of craftsmanship at all levels: in a studio's courage to bankroll and produce it, in a director's utter control of the film's tone and texture, in a cast's willingness to commit themselves to an exceedingly austere type of characterization, in the editors' razor-sharp judgment, in a cinematographer's ability to make himself and his camera disappear from our view — leaving no cushion between us and what's happening. Technically speaking, it is all a remarkable achievement. I'm fascinated by how movies are made, and there are few stories of movie-making more unique and fascinating than this one.

The DVD of United 93 is impeccable and provides the full scope. There's a great feature on the actors meeting with the passengers' families. Greengrass proves in his commentary that this event consumed him to the point where he needed to make this movie. He wanted United 93 to be about the breakdown of systems, how one unimagined event throws a wrench into the machinations of the FAA, the military, the media and civilian life on the ground. The only system that worked on 9/11 was the one in the cabin of United 93, Greengrass says. The passengers were left to fend for themselves, since nothing was trickling down with clarity from the top. (Indeed, military commanders were not notified that United 93 had been hijacked until four minutes after it crashed.) "We can choose to ignore our world," Greengrass says in the commentary. "These people had to act. There was no choice. They had to live and die with the consequences." If this is not the ultimate premise for a movie -- and a strong call for active citizenship on our part -- I don't know what is.

It's also important to remember that half the film takes place on the ground. Greengrass captured the confusing flow of information and disbelief in 45-minute takes, trying to conjure up the reality of that day. Air traffic controllers and some military leaders play themselves. They relived and reproduced their bafflement and creeping, crippling horror. An exercise in masochism? Maybe. But it's also the necessary act of bearing witness. What Greengrass and FAA operations manager Ben Sliney and his staff are able to recreate is really something.

I'm no flag-waving patriot. United 93 is not hero worship, nor is it a twisted revenge movie through which we can assail our own psychological damage. It is told straight, without pause or reflection or ornamentation. It's through this straight-telling that we can come to our own conclusions and, perhaps, catharses. I look at the three movies atop my top 10, and I see a slight pattern. Bubble's construction fascinated me. Bobby's political message moved me. United 93 does a little of both.

Yes, political message. After watching the film twice on DVD I came to realize that, yes, in addition to transporting us, United 93 is saying something. But it's not trying to say something. It makes a point by simply being. The last shot resonates with clarity today, exactly five and a half years after 9/11. We are fighting for the controls of our world as it spins toward destruction. But, unlike the passengers of United 93, we still have time to pull out of it.


Anonymous said...

Never thought about the movie that way. I think the shock of seeing it a first time might mask any of the deeper meanings. Will muster up the energy to see it again soon I hope.

c!aire said...

you have a brilliant vocabulary that envelops the reader. :) that's all i really wanted to say...

Middento said...

I have to say that I completely love and respect your list. Bravo for such wonderful writing as well. Cheers.

Jeanette said...

Okay time for best actor/actress! I nominate Anthony DeSando in A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS for best supporting actor.

J.J. said...

Good choice. I actually just watched the movie and liked it. But not sure if I have it in me to start doing acting awards from last year. It's almost April. We'll see, though.