I have discussed in varying detail the idea of post-9/11 cinema at least once during my review of the decidedly enjoyable Red Eye. That particular film makes for such a great point of reference since it takes place on a plane, focuses on terrorism and plays upon the emotions associated with both frames of reference to American moviegoers. Now to be fair the idea of post-9/11 cinema obviously extends well beyond plane based movies and affects the elements of horror and espionage/action films specifically and in some more unusual ways it also deals with comedy. While these films began emerging within the year or so after the attacks on the Twin Towers, the obvious "don't talk about it" subject for film seemed to be any sort of retelling of the events surrounding the terrorist attacks, or more importantly a recreation of the actual events of those persons on any of the ill-fated flights. Yet, in 2006 Paul Greengrass audaciously approached the story of those on United 93, the one hijacked plane that was diverted from its mission by a set of courageous passengers. I will admit, I avoided this film for what was seven years now, because I felt that this narrative would be exploitative and in bad taste, particularly since it plays on emotions that were, and still are, highly sensitive to Americans. Yet, I could not help but be made aware of the various sources of championing and praise that were directed towards Greengrass' work, and understandably so considering that given the controversy that would exist with such a subject I would posit that it is handled perfectly. In fact, there were a ton of wrong ways that the film could have gone and it never does so, more so, there even "safe" approaches to this film that would have assured its success without taking risks, something that Greengrass also manages to reject. The result that comes from United 93 is a film that manages to capture the events on the day of September 11th, both in its inconceivable initial events to its jarring realization that silenced Americans and the world around. The film ends in the only appropriate way possible, gloomy sure, but nonetheless indicative of the tragedy and the very real loss that still lingers in the American discourse.
United 93 begins in an unexpected manner by focusing on the activities of the terrorist preparing for their missions, shaving and praying in the bathrooms and floors of hotels, indeed following them along to their entering into the airport through security, running late even, as they rush through the gate to their respective flights. It is, in fact, not until the boarding sequence that the film starts to focus on non-terrorist characters, first looking at the pilots who move through their daily chores with practiced indifference to the beleaguered air hostesses who clearly just want to get through with their flights to exist in their moments of rest between travel. The passengers flow into the plane in a sense of normalcy, a few moments of dialogue and light banter occur, aside from the normal preparations. Their flight United 93 is scheduled for an early take off, however, when the air traffic increases they are forced to wait longer than expected. It is during this wait that air traffic controls across the United States begin experiences trouble with their communication on a handful of planes in the skies of America. Seeming at first to be technological issues, it is not until one correspondent picks up what he thinks to be a threat that a fear of hijacking emerges, although the various organizations involved wait with bated breath before sending the nation into panic. Their patient approach proves ill-conceived when a plane crashes into one of the twin towers in New York, only to be immediately followed by another, in which footage of the real life event is incorporated. These attacks lead to an outright madhouse approach between various organizations, demanding that military interception is used a request that is denied due to the safety issues of entering more transportation into the busy airways. All the while the attendants and passengers of United 93 are oblivious, only made worse by the leader of the terrorist particular hesitance to lead his men in their own attack. Yet when the time comes the overtake the plane with violent use of a box cutter and an assumedly fake bomb. Panicked and confused the attendants and passengers initially follow the demands of the terrorists, whose actions are made known to the government and flight branches due to their change in path and radio silence. When it is made apparent that the actions of the terrorists are violent the passengers mount a revolt against them, using boiling water, knives and a fire extinguisher to take back the plane, eventually making it to the cockpit, although their endeavors prove to only fatally ground the plane, it is suggested that the diversion resulted in saving the White House from being another victim of the 9/11 attacks alongside the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
So how then can one conceptualize a film that is so close to the emotions of Americans. It is tough to say, because it is not the same method Bigelow incorporates into the opening moments of Zero Dark Thirty with the voices of real 9/11 victims overlapping darkness. Paul Greengrass is pulling from the actual experiences of a group of people who were riding a plane that was victim to a terrorist attack. Now it is worth remembering that nobody survived this attack and aside from a handful of phone calls and what could be gleaned from the black box recordings, most of the film upon the planes takeoff is left to poetic license. Now this poetic license could have meant that Greengrass painted a perfect and idyllic picture of those on the plane, while juxtaposing it with the fumbling acts of the government to intervene, although it is an understandable hesitation on the part of those organizations due to the unfathomable nature of such an attack. Yet, Greengrass creates a dramatization that shows the real humanity of all those involved from the breaking down emotionally of men and women realizing that their lives will come to an end on the plane, as well as painting a picture of the terrorist as people driven by a misguided blind hope for justice, as well as being susceptible to regret for their engagements. Even the final retaliation by the passengers is filmed in such a frantic and disjointed manner as to reflect what the attack may have actually looked like, no glorious feats of heroism or athleticism, but instead the frantic rage of a mob hoping to quell a terrorist attack, while clinging to a fleeting hope that they will somehow rally together for survival, ignoring their own wounds and burns in they name of survival. Now the film takes minor missteps throughout, whether it be a lack to subtitle certain conversations between the terrorists, or the particular demeaning treatment to one of the few non-American passengers who is not a terrorist, but to call any of this exploitative in relation to the larger narrative is ill-advised and a complete overlooking of the sincerity and gravitas that Greengrass has given the story, again closing it on the moment when all involved would have lost the ability to explain their respective experiences. The brief explanatory texts are not really necessary for viewers, who have at this point had their collective memory rekindled in an unsettling manner, although it is the type of disconcerting feeling that is necessary to understand the wrong doing that occurs on a daily basis.
Key Scene: The once scene Greengrass pulls from actual footage is seemingly obvious, but again he takes this narrative seriously and is fully aware of the power this image has on the collective memory of a post-9/11 society, one so jarring and world changing as it could prove to be the single most important moving image of this still early century.
Netflix has this very important film available and while it is a decidedly daunting engagement, I think it serves as a pseudo-documentary on the events of one plane during the traumatic date in American history.