United 93 - Should Tragedy Be the Subject of Hollywood?
| There has been a great deal of discussion around the film United 93, the story of the United Airlines flight that crashed on its way to the White House after being hijacked on 9/11.
Some say it is a celebration of the heroism of those passengers who stopped the terrorists from reaching their target. Others say that itís exploitation to make money on the story of these peopleís deaths. Still others feel that this kind of story is unnecessary. Having seen United 93 I donít feel any of these are true.
United 93 walks a very fine line. It avoids sentimentality and stays out of propaganda territory. Instead, it focuses solely on recreating, to the best of its ability, the events of that morning, step by step, in the same way someone building a replica model might do.
United 93 isnít made like a typical movie. The film maker goes from moment to moment, event to event, without indulging in regular film conceits such as character or plot development. The film literally shows what occurred and then moves to the next occurrence.
There is no character development at all. I donít know if this is an attempt to remain neutral or judgement free or a desire to keep from offending anyone. No person in the film is fleshed out beyond their basic presence. Everyone is perfectly nice. No one is annoyed or irritating. There are family members of each of these people out there so the film makers refrain from making anyone seem anything more than likeable. Therefore, unlike in most films, their dialogue isnít used to tell us who they are, it simply is there to advance the plot. We assume the best of everyone we see on this doomed flight.
Even the terrorists are simple people. They arenít portrayed as monsters or villains. They are doing something horrible but they are portrayed so blandly. Their motivation is obvious and accepted. Their dialogue is also not used to get into their heads and instead only advances the plot. This is matter of fact with no flourishes.
Most of the dialogue is terribly, realistically flat. In real life, people donít talk like they do in the movies. Real conversations arenít that interesting and realistic dialogue like this comes off as such. Iím surprised that we all donít fall asleep listening to ourselves drone on in our day to day interactions.
This is one of the main drawbacks of the film. The realism and lack of perspective doesnít allow much investment in what we are seeing. We donít connect with anything in the film beyond our simple sympathy for other human beings in crisis. Instead we watch United 93 like we watch a ďhow-toĒ video. We are simply learning.
United 93 avoids using much score at all - near the end there is some but it is minimal - allowing the audience to follow the events without being told what to feel. Despite the film makerís desire to be as clinical as possible, itís hard not to feel emotionally overwhelmed. We are watching people die and it would be inhuman to not feel loss.
Director Paul Greengrass stages everything in faithful recreation. This isnít story telling. Itís an attempt at chronicle and hopefully catharsis.
This is where the debate begins. Should they have taken sides? Should they have swung our sympathy for certain individuals and therefore at the cost of others? Should they have made a documentary, even more clinical in its approach? Should they being telling this story at all or should we not explore our emotions about 9/11 in art?
You could name hundreds of movies based on real and tragic events. From Titanic to From Here to Eternity to Schindlerís List to Conspiracy, film makers have tried to recreate tragedy, sometimes with painstaking detail, to tell stories of the human condition. To me United 93 is no different except that itís happening so quickly after the events.
I disagree with those who feel that these events should not be the subject of films. I think art is an excellent way of us collectively processing tragedy. This isnít a blockbuster style film and doesnít get into the kind of Hollywood cheese that would lead to exploitation. Instead, it is an attempt to understand something horribly unimaginable.
Human tragedy is shared and should be discussed so we can collectively deal with it. Greengrass does a great job of giving us the story without turning it into anything itís not.
As a movie it might not work as well as it could have with a ďheroĒ and a ďvillainĒ and the kinds of plot devises that our storytelling experiences usually involve. For example, there is no satisfaction. Usually we get some peace by seeing the ďbad guyĒ beaten, suffering or receiving justice. United 93 in its docudrama style doesnít give us anything like that. Instead, the end just happens.
There is a beautiful moment in the film that appears near the end. Itís one of the only artsy moments in the picture. There is a moment where everyone is collectively praying, both the hijacked and the hijackers. Itís a moment when everyone is human together all at once.
If Greengrass had found a way to balance this film with a little more of this and a little less of the sterility, he might have made a masterpiece. Instead he has made a film that is still worth seeing, experiencing and discussing. He has helped us to better understand in some small way the tragedy of 9/11, the loss of human life both those taken and those doing the taking.