Movie-Hype (#715) – UNITED 93
Four planes crashed on September 11, 2001. Two of them (United Airlines Flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 11) crashed into the World Trade Center Towers. You will never forget where you were when you heard that. A third plane (American Airlines Flight 77) hit the Pentagon, causing major damage and loss of life. Then there was United Airlines Flight 93. It crashed too, but in a field in Pennsylvania, and understandably did not get the same attention as the others did. UNITED 93 is a movie about that flight.
When I first heard about the plans to make UNITED 93 (in 2005), I was about as leery as a person gets. Hollywood's grab for dollars can seem crass at times, but for this event it almost seemed sacrilege. Secondly, Paul Greengrass was the director, and while I enjoyed THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, I thought it was a step backward, mostly for the annoying overuse of shaky-cam. Nothing turns me off a potential movie more than a director with a reputation. Most importantly, I just did not feel like America needed a movie about 9/11. Not that soon after. Wounds were still too fresh. We had not forgotten. We did not need to be told what happened. We all lived through it. In a way, we were all there.
A year later, I had softened my stance. I did so after finding out that Greengrass and his production company had gone to extreme lengths to not only get the permission of the families of the people who died on that flight, but also worked with them to get a real sense of the people they were portraying. Moreover, Greengrass had gone out of his way to get as many details as possible, and rather than making a sensationalized film, propaganda or (worse) treacle, he was trying to honor what had happened by getting the details right. All of them.
Add to that the fact that you can never go wrong underestimating the American Public's ability to forget or trivialize the biggest day in the history of the country, and I thought maybe we do need a movie. Maybe people do need to be reminded. Already.
Thus, it was with a slightly more open mind that I sat down to watch UNITED 93 last November. I came away shaken, my heart hurting, and absolutely convinced that not only had I seen one of the best movies of 2006, but that UNITED 93 should be required viewing in every school in the country. Every year. For as long as it takes to remember.
UNITED 93 feels so real you would swear you were watching a documentary. No, more than that. It feels like you are watching the events as they happen. Like you are there. (Which is on purpose.) Except for the opening scenes, UNITED 93 takes place in real time. There is no background music. There are no flourishes. It was an early morning flight. You have been on many yourself. Do you remember flourishes? No. You remember people reading the paper and drinking coffee, perhaps talking softly on cell phones or watching Headline News on one of the TVs as they got ready to board the aircraft.
You begin to understand. You are not watching a movie. You are watching history. As mundane as it is. As terrible as it is. You are there too. As boring as it would have been. As terrible as it turned out.
I do not want to say too much about the film, as I would rather you experience it for yourself. I will tell you that while the passengers are played mainly by professional actors, many of the others (flight crew, tower people, and military personnel) are played by people who actually do those jobs. In one case (the FAA guy who is in charge of things, on his very first day), it is the very guy who was there. The dude is playing himself. You cannot ask for much more real than that. Having worked for an airline, I can tell you that just about every detail, from the jargon to the physics, are done correctly. Yes, you could nitpick here and there, but compared to any other movie you see out of Hollywood, the technical details are amazing. Yet you will not even notice them. It is as it should be.
I will also tell you that unlike the abomination that was the A&E version (Flight 93), UNITED 93 does not try to make heroes. There are no human-interest stories to focus on. Yes, we spend a great deal of time with the passengers (as well as the FAA people trying to help and military commanders unsure whether to attack), but mostly as strangers and without names. This ethic fits with the entire filmmaking goal of making you feel like you were there. Think about it: how often do you get to know fellow passengers, especially on an early morning flight? You don't. Most of the time you can fly across the country and never find out two things about the person next to you. It is the same way here. We overhear parts of cell phone conversations (which are as accurate as possible, after interviewing families, listening to voice mail messages, etc.), but we do not get those "hero" shots like we normally would.
I will also tell you that ultimately the only people who know for sure what happened on that plane died. All of them. As such, any "documentary" look into the flight is going to necessitate some extrapolation and guesswork. I am fine with that. What is more important is to get the details right, even when not all of them are knowable. Does that make sense? Watch this film and tell me it did not happen that way. You will know it did. In your bones, you will know it. Even if all the details are not completely accurate, you will still know it is right.
I must also mention that if you are looking for some sort of demonization of the four highjackers, UNITED 93 is not your movie. We watch them go through their morning as we do the other passengers. The film does not sympathize with them, but neither does it paint them with a murderer's brush. Their actions do that for them. We are simply there to watch.
At the beginning of the review, I told you that United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. What I left out is why the plane did that. Surely, you know that answer, but if you do not, do not attempt to find out; watch this movie. What I did not mention above is where the plane was supposed to crash, if I can use such a word. By every account possible, this plane was supposed to crash into the Capitol Building or the White House. I want you to go back and read that last sentence again. Had this plane done what its highjackers intended, America would be a far different place today. How different could make the next ten columns, but I think it safe to say you would not be sitting where you are today.
I am remembering now that on September 15 of 2001, still reeling like the rest of the world, I wrote a short column proposing that the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. At the time I thought it was just a good idea, a way to honor heroes who—understanding just what was at stake, via cell phone calls to loved ones to find out about the other concurrent attacks—willingly gave everything to keep their plane from doing the same. Five years later I know now the plan was not that cut and dry. There was no group decision to jump on the grenade. There was imperfect knowledge. Some people knew some of what was going on. Some people knew little. No one knew everything. That is the way of war, is it not? People, like you. In a situation they had been in many times before. Except now it was chaos. It was confusing. People were scared. They did not know what was going on.
All the more reason to award those medals.
This is what I want you to do tonight. Change what you were going to do and watch UNITED 93. If you have kids over the age of 10, make them watch it too. It will be too scary for them. Make them watch it anyway. Be there with them and for them afterward, so they can feel safe and loved, but do not keep from them the understanding of what went on in that plane, what went on in this country, what began in this world.
It is at least a start.
Important Note #1: DO NOT return the DVD after you watch it. The special features on this film are essential, almost as much as the movie. We get to watch as many of the families meet for the first time the "actor" who played the sons and daughters, husbands and wives lost in the crash. You will not be able to sit through the feature without crying, but you need to nonetheless.
Important Note #2: Greengrass uses the "shaky" cam here again, to much better effect in my mind. But be warned: it can turn your stomach. The film ends abruptly, so be prepared for that as well. If you think about it, you can figure out exactly when the film ends. Again, understand: there will be some people out there very disturbed by what they see. That's okay. You need to be.