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The Specter of Speculation: United 93

The Stop Smiling Film Review

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

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Friday, April 28, 2006

United 93
Directed by Paul Greengrass
(Universal)
Opens nationwide today

Reviewed by James Hughes

Caught in the emotional groundswell following the first anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, director Steven Spielberg fulfilled his obligation as bellwether of the Hollywood community — a role that is sometimes sanctimonious, but consistently awkward — by calling on all filmmakers to show restraint when it came to depicting the terrorist attacks on film. Although prone to revising his remarks (in that same month he would validate Bush’s WMD claims), Spielberg did not mince words: “There should never be a film about September 11. It was the 21st century's moment of infamy and we should all make sure it never happens again.”

Less than four years later, Spielberg’s appeal has fallen on deaf ears. (Even Spielberg himself has made a trilogy of films that capitalize on terrorist fears while carefully circumventing 9/11.) The events of 9/11 have become a bona fide celluloid sub-genre, with all possible outlets keeping busy beneath the tent-pole: cable television (Flight 93, which aired in February on A&E, recorded the highest ratings in the network’s history, and don’t forget 2003’s DC 9/11: Time of Crisis on Showtime), network television (everything from “Homeland Security” on NBC to the eternal recurrence of Fox’s “24”), and the silver screen (Columbia Pictures is developing 102 Minutes, about the struggle within the Towers, and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is waiting in the wings). Despite the need to dramatize events, the most illuminating 9/11 statement to date remains Adam Curtis’s 2004 documentary The Power of Nightmares, which was produced by the BBC and (besides a short run in a single New York theater) has yet to air on America televison — and most likely never will.

But all of this is mere setup to the release of United 93, a real-time depiction of the fourth hijacked airliner that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, written and directed by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, Bloody Sunday). By all accounts, this is the flagship film of the burgeoning 9/11 genre. It is distributed in the States by a major studio (Universal), has already scored above-the-fold coverage and editorials in the country’s most prominent newspapers, and received an endorsement from the red-carpet alliance by securing the opening slot at the Tribeca Film Festival. Though the Festival is still in its infancy (it launched in reaction to the devastation of the Tribeca area following the attacks on the Twin Towers), it has already gained an impressive reputation among locals while establishing a national presence. Both Poseidon and Mission: Impossible III are also having their world premieres there, although, in terms of preliminary media coverage, United 93 has clearly capsized Wolfgang Petersen’s submarine film and the train wreck that is Tom Cruise (his crass flaunting of his über-celebrity, sadly, notwithstanding). Reports of the reaction of victims’ families, over 90 of whom were invited to attend the premiere for United 93 at the Ziegfeld Theater on Tuesday, are enough to wipe the slate of media static clean and treat this film with the level of seriousness it strives to achieve. But the implications of such a work — particularly when foreign distribution is considered — are not yet clear, and the debate over the public’s reluctance to endure the film’s content might stir for quite some time, as Variety recently reported.

When audiences got their first taste of the theatrical trailer for United 93, it was a gut-check moment that has been absent in American theaters since the Gibson/Moore clash of 2004, despite the highly touted “controversial” period pieces that occupied the Best Picture category at this year’s Oscars. As was widely reported, audiences in the New York City area were particularly taken aback, given their proximity to the attacks and the probability that some theatergoers seeking escape in films like Inside Man were unexpectedly confronted with images of the suffering of loved ones and acquaintances. Keeping that tragic thought in mind, I braced for the worst — that the creators of United 93 had crossed all lines and dog-eared each page from the profiteer’s tear-jerk, hijack playbook. Was this Hollywood exploitation in its rawest form, or one small step in the ongoing healing process of a polarized nation? The answer, like everything surrounding this film, isn’t simple.

For those who treat the 9/11 Commission Report as a definitive summary of that day’s events, this film might have true power — perhaps even the possibility of transcendence. But for those with questions that remained unanswered about the government response to the vile terrorist attacks, the process of enduring the 111 minutes might be even more taxing. For example, can a film about 9/11 claim objectivity with such an extensive special thanks to the Department of Defense at the end of the film? (This was surely one of the most interesting end crawls in cinema history.)

As a filmmaker, Greengrass deserves credit for his sober approach and commitment to the recreation of such a dreadful episode, real or imagined (I can’t imagine what the rehearsals were like, let alone the sustained tension between takes). But from a historical perspective, his strengths lie not in depicting the events in the air so much as his stark portrayal of the events on the ground. His camera brings the viewer into the storm of activity inside various air traffic control towers — in Boston, Cleveland, Newark and Herndon, Virginia — and, most impressively, into the Cold War bowels of NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in Rome, New York, where the military struggled to establish the rules of engagement once the pattern of hijackings emerged. In these locations, where the radar screens and audio transmissions leave a more decisive trail of evidence (posthumously, of course), the film offers a stronger semblance of reality. Contributing to that sense of realism was Greengrass’s decision to cast nearly a dozen air traffic controllers and supervisors to portray themselves on screen. I wouldn’t attempt to question those individual’s recollection of the day’s events, especially from civilian employees, and their quest for information both during and after the attacks is commendable.

Time, of course, is a major factor in this film. A general timeline has been stitched together from the phone calls made by the passengers of Flight 93, along with the cockpit recordings (transcripts of which have since been made available to the public during the Moussaoui trial). But it’s unsettling when a film that goes so far as to cast the actual air traffic controllers then attempts to replicate that same level of authenticity within a hijacked plane in mid-flight. It presumes to know the minute-by-minute breakdown of one of the great mysteries in modern history — and at a time when crucial facts are still emerging.

The lead-up to the hijacking is explored in great detail. Though it is frustrating that there are only a few shots of the terrorists slipping unmolested through airport security (is this not a facet of the story that still baffles air travelers?), Greengrass makes up for it by focusing on the fueling process of Flight 93. This is an ingenious stroke, considering the importance of the airplanes' full gas tanks and how that factored into the grand scheme of 9/11. The United airliner, which was built to scale at Pinewood Studios in England, is crafted in explicit detail (down to the tattered corners of Hemispheres magazine curling up out of the seat pouches). It’s an impressive accomplishment for the film’s production designers, recalling the famous anecdote of Ken Adam, the legendary production designer of Dr. Strangelove, who struck fear into the military officials who visited the B-52 bomber set (located at Shepperton Studios, which is now operated by Pinewood), because his cockpit set was so supremely accurate.

The activity on the plane, however, can feel staged at times, especially during the pre-flight ritual. On a recent flight through O’Hare, a ticket agent vented to me that “just once” she wanted to wake up and have everyone be polite for one day (she stressed one day, knowing the implausibility of such a request). On Flight 93, the simple serving of meals and the routine presentation of security procedures are greeted with warm, booming smiles from the passengers that have the feel, I’m sorry to say, of a Folger’s commercial. However, when the plot thickens (audiences really should be prepared for graphic violence and dizzying handheld camerawork) there is a true dignity in the behavior of the actors (which of course evokes the humanity of the real victims of the attack). The most instinctive moments of bravery come when the passengers take the risk of making calls home, despite the looming presence of two terrorists assigned to watch the cabin, one brandishing a knife, the other a makeshift bomb. Late in the flight, a terrified stewardess struggles to phone loved ones, starting her call with the simple but eloquent line, “I promise to quit tomorrow.” The imagined dialogue — surely a daunting screenwriting task if ever there was one — is handled with care. (The rally cry “Let’s roll” was tastefully read off-camera during a tracking shot down the aisle of frightened passengers as they braced for the revolt.)

In the case of the events unfolding on the ground, it’s what isn’t known (or unseen) that’s most effective in United 93. Throughout the film, Greengrass tastefully withholds political commentary and avoids, to use a favorite White House catch phrase, the “blame game” of pointing to who was and wasn’t prepared to respond to the attacks — particularly the issue of the “shootdown order” of United 93 for the “no-shit hijacking” (as it’s referred to at NEADS). While the air traffic controllers and military officials at NEADS improvise strategies at breakneck speed, there are constant shouts about “communication with the president” to certify the authority to shoot down planes. “How long will it take to get that authority?” one official asks urgently. Bush, as we know, was busy projecting calm in a classroom in Sarasota, Florida, even after learning that the first plane — American 11 departing from Boston’s Logan Airport — had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 am. Regardless, his visit to Emma E. Booker Elementary School to promote a new reading program proceeded as planned, and his choice of action will eternally haunt his legacy.

While millions of Americans scrambled for whatever limited information was available in the media (including, as Greengrass’s film shows, the actual air traffic controllers, who relied heavily on CNN updates), Bush reportedly did not see images of the WTC attacks until after he left the reading lesson and was briefed further by Andrew Card, his former chief of staff. This was well after learning from Card that a second plane had hit the South Tower at 9:02 am and the country was “under attack.” This half-hour of George Bush’s time is as worthy of scrutiny as any passage of time in presidential history. At 9:36 am, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, Vice President Dick Cheney was in a tunnel leading to the bunker beneath the White House when misinformation — that American 77 was heading toward Washington, DC (it would ultimately crash at the Pentagon in Virginia) — threatened his safety. Cheney “paused in an area of the tunnel that had a secure phone, a bench, and television.” It was here that he learned of the attack on the Pentagon, prompting the Secret Service to move him into the conference shelter room, flanked by his wife, Lynne, and cabinet members like Condoleezza Rice, Joshua Bolten and Scooter Libby. From this post, Cheney issued the shootdown order, insisting that the authority stemmed from the President. Blaming “poor communications” and a conference line that “kept cutting off,” Bush’s verbal commitment to a shootdown order was not considered solid, prompting Bolten to seek further confirmation before committing to the fatal act of destorying a commercial airliner.

From there, it’s still inconclusive (in my personal opinion) how United 93 was downed in Pennsylvania, though there are indisputable facts. The shootdown order was confirmed. Phone calls from passengers confirm a revolt was in the planning stages, and the cockpit tapes imply the struggle had reached the front of the plane. From there, Greengrass turns speculation into solid fact. Its attempt to seamlessly match the response on the ground with the presumed scenario in the sky unfortunately calls the entire film into question.

But above all, one truth remains: the sacrifice of the 40 passengers on Flight 93 is truly remarkable. The film portrays their courage in the face of staggering odds in its own subjective and respectful way. It achieves what it wants as a film. But the reality may be more different than we realize. Though it’s reassuring to streamline the confused action in the cockpit into an American triumph, I wasn’t particularly comforted when the woman seated behind me in the screening room pounded her armrests during the climax of the revolt and shouted, to the pleasure of those around her, “Kick they asses!”


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