Media

9/11: the Movie

A new film, 'United 93,' is Hollywood's first big-budget take on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. How much does it actually get right?
The Sept. 11 attacks, it has often been noted, looked eerily similar to a Hollywood blockbuster. With Universal Pictures' "United 93," the first event-movie of the summer, we have arrived full circle.

While it may be impossible to put aside the actual catastrophic happenings of that day, that's exactly what I'd like to do for the purposes of this discussion. Forget, momentarily, the recently released transcript of flight 93's data recorder and the questions of whether it's too soon or not soon enough, respectful or exploitive. Just take a look at "United 93" -- which opens today -- for what it is: a movie, but more specifically, a gut-wrenching disaster movie, complete with regular American folks who turn into heroes and a collection of authority figures that don't know their ass from their elbow. How does this piece of media function -- as a jingoistic call to arms, or a searing indictment of power?

"United 93," in some ways, accomplishes both, following the blueprint for the disaster movie genre cultivated in the 1970s with such calamitous camp classics as "The Towering Inferno," "Earthquake" and, of course, the movie that started it all, "The Poseidon Adventure." (Is it just a coincidence that "Poseidon," Hollywood's new big-budget remake of the survival tale, opens just two weeks after "United 93"?)

The '70s disaster flicks arrived during a period of profound crisis in our nation's history, when the Vietnam War had reached the breaking point, and the government was losing its grip. (The successful release of "The Poseidon Adventure" coincided with Nixon's reelection in 1972 and the Watergate hearings in '73.) With capsized cruise liners, burning buildings and even killer bees, these films trafficked in destruction, panic and mass death. But they also showed off the indubitable spirit of disparate citizens who bonded together to keep the American Dream alive. As pop-philosopher Slavoj Zizek has said, "What fascinates me about disaster films is how circumstances of vast catastrophe suddenly bring about social cooperation."

If it sounds like right-wing pablum, it often is. The '70s disaster cycle was famous for killing off the corrupt privileged and sexually active, while the righteous and wholesome end up saved or majestically martyred. In the original "Poseidon Adventure," it is a preacher (played by Gene Hackman) and a working-class cop (Ernest Borgnine) who lead a small group of passengers to safety. That the preacher also dies doesn't diminish his stature, because -- to use President Bush's propagandistic rhetoric -- he made the "the ultimate sacrifice."

"United 93" is also a story of ordinary Americans who die in a catastrophe. And like its predecessors, the movie reflects a deep distrust of authority. In a Hollywood-created crisis, whether it's "The Towering Inferno," "Die Hard" or "United 93," you can't trust the corporate suits or military units; always stick with blue-collar stalwarts such as the renegade cop, courageous fire chief or resourceful flight attendant.

In "United 93," the governmental incompetence on display is staggering. Air-traffic operators speak of a "possible hijack" about 25 minutes before the first plane hits the World Trade Center, but like some nightmare game of telephone, the information gets passed from Command Centers to Federal Aviation Administration to Northeast Air Defense with little efficiency or clarity. According to the film, CNN knows more about the crisis than anyone in charge. For all the moving blips on the radar screens, the systems of power are totally in the dark. "How long is it going to take to get that authority?" we hear repeatedly.

This may sound like a hard-hitting criticism of our current leadership (indeed, Bush and Cheney are depicted as unreachable throughout the course of the attacks). But the film's distrust of high muckety-mucks ultimately reinforces the renegade populism of the Bush presidency -- and more widely, the American western mythology. Again, the valiant individuals on the hijacked plane have always provided the potency behind the real-life story of the doomed flight 93.

While the film smartly eschews the Hollywood habit of masquerading celebrities as ordinary Americans, instead using a cast of unknowns, there is the familiar strategy of introducing the characters before the big calamity through a mishmash of brief scenes that mix the banal and the excruciatingly tense -- here, made all the more agonizing through handheld cameras, ominous music and the continuous delaying of the hijack. (It does not begin until about a full hour into the film.)

But unlike standard disaster movies, we're given even less access to our surrogates. At the airport terminal and on board waiting for takeoff, we pick up only snippets of conversations about wives and kids, planned vacations and business dealings. Yet the characters' lack of depth is intentional.These are not fully fleshed-out people; they symbolize a diverse band of American brothers and sisters who fight back against a common enemy.

There are a few characters, however, who briefly stand out: a first-class Caucasian latecomer with a baseball cap and blocky build who has "sportsman" -- and average American hero -- written all over him; a German blond businessman who turns out as a stereotypically weak-kneed Euro-pacifist (an obvious non-American who is eventually neutralized); and the FAA's Ben Sliney (played by the real Sliney), who while ineffectual, at least appears angry at the ineptitude surrounding him. He's the only ornery, likeable figurehead: Think Walter Matthau in "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3" or Charles Durning in "Dog Day Afternoon."

Then there are the terrorists. British director Paul Greengrass (the estimable filmmaker behind "Bloody Sunday," a docudrama about the 1972 British massacre of Irish protestors) opens the film not with Americans, but with the prayers of Islamic extremists. He does not demonize these men, but portrays them as frightened and nervous. In a nuanced depiction that may enrage right-wingers, their leader, who eventually pilots the plane, comes across as downright sympathetic -- a slim man with glasses who, before boarding, calls someone on his cell phone and whispers in German, "Ich liebe dich" ("I love you").

In fact, one of the best scenes in the film -- which comes near the end -- links both terrorists and victims in this epic human tragedy. In a series of brief shots, we see hijackers and passengers praying alike. Whether Islamic or Judeo-Christian, there are no atheists inside downward-spiraling airplanes -- and everyone on the flight, for one brief moment, is united by fear of death and pleas for salvation.

For the secular, the montage may smack of the religiosity in many apocalyptic Hollywood visions and the source for so much of the world's current quagmire. And while that may be true, it's also a rare instance of humanness in a film filled with pounding thuds on the soundtrack, occasional bursts of gruesome violence and, depending on how you look at it, a celebration of American vengeance. The film climaxes with the bloody revolt of the passengers.

About three weeks ago, an early version of "United 93" screened for critics that ended with the title card: "America's war on terror had begun." The neocon-cowboyish clarion call has since been cut from the film. But the sentiment still reigns.
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and Utne Magazine.