Thursday, May 04, 2006
I took a late and long lunch today to see United 93 and I’m still recovering. It’s a well-made film, but its power comes from tapping into nearly five years worth of emotions and memories. I don’t know that it could possibly have the same kind of emotional impact if the viewer hadn’t lived through September 11; it would just seem too unlikely, too unreal. But for someone who was watching a live video feed as the second plane hit the World Trade Center--who spent most of a day following the news and wondering what else the terrorists had planned--it drills right back to that moment. When the footage of that second plane rolled across the screen, the same shaking fury that I had felt that morning settled into me. It was followed by the memories of watching the towers collapse and waves of debris and dust rolling through city streets; the wall of hastily scrawled notes and pictures from families searching for loved ones; and Father Mychal Judge’s body being carried from the wreckage.
The movie doesn’t come across in any way as exploitation and while it doesn’t work to demonize the terrorists, it doesn’t sanitize them or make them into sympathetic figures, either. It just comes across as a retelling of events without any sense of melodrama. I don’t think we should all live out the rest of our lives mired in depression because of the events of that one day, but for anyone who has managed to distance themselves too completely from 9/11, United 93 should act as a reminder of the day that shook us from our collective complacency.
The people on flight 93 were just folks. They were just people like the rest of us who were going about their lives in the same quiet way that the majority of people live out their days. Watching the actors--symbolically burned into my mind as the faces of the passengers--tearfully telling their families goodbye was devastating. To an extent, like most emotionally charged movies, I’m sure that United 93 acts somewhat as a mirror to whatever viewers bring into the theaters. For me, it served as a tremendously emotional reminder of why I have supported ongoing military actions in the Middle East; I’m sure that others will find something else in there. What no one will find is something that pushes, prods, or preaches.
Which is its greatest triumph. The event is too important to trivialize or treat with anything other than respect; the passengers that gave their lives in the slender hope of saving themselves and the almost certain hope of averting another potentially more deadly terrorist strike are far too real to be seen as caricatures. Oliver Stone directing a movie about anything to do with the World Trade Center attacks is sickening. His lack of subtlety, his need to preach, and his cock-eyed tendency to see conspiracies promise a movie that will be offensive; United 93, walks an entirely different, and far more impressive, path: it remembers the day with an emotional impact and clarity without having to provide a sermon or easy Hollywood-style answers.
To praise the movie or the actors or the visuals too much seems to be wrong for some reason. It seems to shortchange the reality of the people who lived and died in New York, in the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania. Allow me this, though: it’s a simple movie that may not translate well to the next generation; but for the rest of us, United 93 is an amazing emotional and artistic accomplishment. Sadly it has to come to remind us of something we’d much rather be able to forget and something that we wish had never happened.