EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - For my first weekend of summer vacation, what did I do on Saturday? Go to see a movie, of course!
It's been a while. The last film I saw in a theater was Thank You for Smoking---a not-bad, thought-provoking, equal-opportunity satire of lobbyists defending an amoral industry like the cigarette industry---and that was in, say, late March/early April? My last few weekends at school were busy indeed, so I missed a few I had wanted to see: American Dreamz (which got generally mediocre reviews, but still, a movie that satirizes American Idol and politicians in one sounds pretty appealing to me), The Sentinel (which got a worse critical drubbing, but I'm such a 24 enthusiast that I'm willing to see Jack Bauer---excuse me, Kiefer Sutherland---in anything, even if it is directed by the same man who helmed the dull S.W.A.T. about two-and-a-half years ago), and probably one or two others that I'm forgetting.
But I got back into the swing of things yesterday by checking out a film I've been meaning to see for a couple of weeks now: Paul Greengrass' controversial 9/11 film United 93 (*** out of ****).
When I saw a trailer for the film a couple of months ago, I heard a couple in front of me remark about how it was "disgusting" that Hollywood was releasing a movie about the people onboard Flight 93 who tried to overpower their hijackers on September 11. My internal instinct was to wait until the movie came out before I was willing to assent and cry "exploitation."
Now that I have seen the movie, I will say this: I don't think the movie is exploitation. Not totally. Actually, now that I think about it, perhaps a case could be made for both sides, although not in the way one might think.
First of all, it must be said that United 93 is not a sensationalized, hyped-up action thriller in the usual Hollywood sense. Instead, writer-director Greengrass---whose previous credits include Bloody Sunday (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004), neither of which I have seen, I'll admit---tries to achieve a vividly realistic cinema verite quality to the film through the use of handheld camerawork, quick cutaways, and occasionally tight close-ups. This is meant to play like a carefully observed, step-by-step, almost journalistic account of what happened in approximately two fateful hours on September 11, 2001, and how different people---air traffic controllers at various locations, Washington, and especially the people on board United Flight 93---responded to the horrors they were witnessing. Some were obviously scared for their lives, but others---particularly people standing around barking orders in control towers in New York, Virginia, Boston, and other locations---reacted with disbelief: no way this is really happening.
Viscerally, United 93 puts you in the middle of it all: you experience the exasperation, the panic, the terror that everyone in the film experiences at one point or another. You understand the frustration Ben Sliney feels as he tries to cut through bureaucratic red tape in order to reach the FAA to tell it to ground all flights. You feel the desperation of the people who fear imminent death on Flight 93 when they realize the terrorists are not going to land at another airport. The movie, it must be said, is an intense, occasionally discomforting experience, as a film about such a harrowing subject as the dislocation and fear of 9/11 should be.
So United 93 is, one must concede, a brilliantly made, powerful film, impressive in both its filmmaking skill and its immediacy and gutbusting impact. But what does this unabashedly un-sensationalized film ultimately add up to, I wonder? What does it teach us or show us about what happened that day and how it happened that we couldn't already guess going in? If you think about what Greengrass actually shows you, one might reasonably conclude "not much." Sure, the film, for instance, presents us with the actual Flight 93 hijackers and admirably doesn't demonize them, but if you're looking for some kind of insight into explaining why they do what they do, this is not the movie to provide it. And there is a part of me that says that, for the first Hollywood studio film directly about 9/11, Greengrass' admittedly tasteful depiction is, as a response to one of the most horrifying events of recent times, rather inadequate. Other filmmakers---Steven Spielberg with War of the Worlds and Munich, for example; and even George Clooney with Good Night, and Good Luck, in a way---have created eloquent artistic responses to the consequences of 9/11 either through genre filmmaking or through impassioned drama (or melodrama). Greengrass' approach is done with utmost sensitivity and humanity, and for that he should be applauded---but it doesn't really leave you walking out of the theater with much to really think about other than how intense and discomforting the experience was. Isn't the acclaim for the film based more on what it doesn't do than what it actually does? And do we really need to relive the experience again anyway?
Still, I have to be fair: this is a powerfully effective film, one that achieves the not-unconsiderable effect of rendering a tragedy we perhaps know all too much about in a refreshing and even terrifying manner. And, speaking for myself, I find it worthy at the very least as a reminder of the heroism of not only the people onboard Flight 93, but also the not quite so obvious heroism of the people on the ground who kept their cool under immense pressure in trying to find out what the hell was going on that day. United 93 is good enough to be both a sufficient 9/11 memorial and a film that, very subtly, poses important questions: whether bureacratic red tape perhaps could have inadvertently led to the Flight 93 tragedy if its hijacking had been confirmed sooner, for example? If it can justifiably be damned for not necessarily providing answers or a consistent point-of-view (other than, I guess, an "objective" one)---then all I can say is that movies are not always necessarily the best places for answers to difficult questions. Do you need to see it? Depends on how you feel about the prospect of sitting through a reenactment of a horrific real-life tragedy, although I would urge you to go see it with an open mind and decide for yourself whether there is a place for a movie like this. I have my doubts, but the impact of this movie cannot be denied.