Tuesday, May 30, 2006

United 93

It took me this long to finally muster the energy (and courage) to go see this movie. Like most of this country's moviegoers, I really wasn't sure if I wanted to see it. To begin with, I am not fond of flying and to experience, albeit vicariously, the horrible sensation of knowing your plane is going to slam into the ground, already filled me with terror. Plus, having been in NY that fateful day, I was not finding myself in the mood to relive it, even if it was through a movie screen. However, being a fan of director's Paul Greengrass excellent Bloody Sunday, and having read the almost unanimously glowing reviews, I went.
Apparently, not many people have followed suit. So far, United 93 has only grossed about 30 million dollars. If you compare that to the opening of the latest installment of futile spectacles like X-Men or Mission Impossible, it is quite a modest number.
United 93 is a very good film. And it raises many interesting questions.
Are Americans ready to watch a film about this subject five years after that terrible day? To me, if they are ready to watch the crap they do on a routine basis, they should be ready to watch a serious film about the day that changed this country's fate. But moviegoers in America seem to prefer their movies light and simplistic, if not downright stupid. People claim they don't like to go to the movies to suffer. Well, maybe they should. They might learn something.
Here we are, rehashing cheesy disaster films like the Poseidon Adventure, when United 93 is the disaster movie to end all disaster movies. You sit through this film trying to soothe yourself silly by repeating the mantra it's only a movie, when you know full well it isn't. This makes it almost excrutiating to watch, and I'm almost ashamed to confess, extremely suspenseful. We all know how it ends, and still, even though the film has the feel of a documentary, it is written by Paul Greengrass with a beautiful and horrible dramatic arc that is extremely gripping. What I most admire is how spare and direct and powerful the drama is. It is not nationalistic, jingoistic, patriotic or any of the crap we are used to expect from movies about terrible disasters. Mercifully, there are no famous movie stars playing superhuman American heroes, no Arab villains that are caricatures of evil. Everyone in this movie is human, including, surprisingly, and extremely effectively, the hijackers (it just makes their choices all the more pointless, all the more impossible to understand) . There are no speeches, no poetry, nothing that sounds like words on a page, just the urgent, clipped language used in a time of crisis. Somehow, the words uttered by the people on the command control on the ground as well as the passengers and crew in the air, reminded me of the sparseness of Mamet (without the cursing) or of Harold Pinter. The movie is an existential drama and that is its greatest strength.
One of my very smart friends pointed out that the real events of 9/11 seemed like a disaster movie to begin with. On the crowded, stunned streets of New York, one half expected Godzilla to appear in the horizon. It was a shocking realization how much like a movie it was: so unbelievable, so over the top. What's really interesting is that United 93 is as realistic and documentary-like as a fictional recreation of a real event can be. Instead of going for the Good vs Evil cliché that has been the mark of American film since day one, the filmmakers had the guts, the brains and the decency to try to recreate the experience of that day as intimately and realistically as possible. In my view, they succeeded in a way that no other film about real human calamity ever has (try to think about any truly worthy film about the Holocaust, for instance). The creative choices must be unsoiled by superficiality or preachiness.
Here there are so many thoughtful, brilliant choices: for instance, the use of some of the real controllers on the ground. They must be the only people who can say their own jargon convincingly. I wonder how difficult it must have been for them to act out again that horrible nightmare of a day. The editing is magnificent, the mostly handheld frantic photography, crammed with subtle details. I even liked the music, except for a couple of key moments where it felt like an unwelcome intrusion. The movie is violent in itself, but it does not dwell on the violence. It is shot as if you were there. It is a cathartic experience.
So how much does film influence our perception of reality? Would the scope, the grandeur almost, of the attacks have been possible without the crazy things that happen in the movies? Once more, it seems that truth is way harder, stranger and exaggerated than fiction, and thus, to make it into a movie, Greengrass and his team went for the real. He turned out to be the perfect director for this film. Besides his mastery at pushing the story forward with almost unbearable tension, perhaps the fact that he is not an American also helps. There is a cool rationality in his sparse, stripped down delivery, yet there is also true empathy for the human predicament. He deserves a nomination both for writing and directing.
It has been conjectured that the passengers in that flight knew they were going to die and they decided to die fighting. They must have understood that the hijackers intended to damage another crucial landmark. The movie does not dwell too much on their motives. It makes their rebellion, if indeed it happened, seem logical and heroic at a believable human scale.

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