Sunday, May 14, 2006

United 93

First things first: I am a New Yorker. The thing I remember most prominently about September 11th is how long the day and the following week seemed to last. It took so long to sink in. I was in my office in midtown Manhattan and a co-worker knocked and opened my door quickly and said something to the effect of 'You'd better come see this. The World Trade Center is on fire.' I didn't rush. I didn't freak out. A building on fire: happens all the time.

I hadn't been at work long so I just saved my files and sauntered down to the break area where the TV was. There it was, smoking, just like he said. There was still considerable confusion from the reporters as to why and how and extent of the damage. But it looked bad. Was it a small aircraft?

Still, this was the break room and I had a lot of work to do so back I went to my desk. Needless to say the trip back to the desk didn't last long, not much if any work was done that day and life seemed much different afterwards. The next week is a blur for me with only a few specific memories. Among them crying quietly with friends while watching the news one night. Walking down the streets of Manhattan with no moving cars in sight (very strange). Lying down in Sheeps Meadow in Central Park and staring up at the sky feeling bewildered. Recalling suddenly that I had nearly bought plane tickets home to Detroit for that very morning but had delayed my vacation a week so my tickets read September 18th, 2001. It was a strange and horribly sad time. I don't remember writing this but I let readers know I was OK a week later and I don't remember writing this either but apparently I got annoyed with Hollywood for refusing to continue on their traditional entertaining course. I remember thinking at the time that all the media talk of will Hollywood change? was complete farce. They'd be back to big violence and big explosions in no time. I couldn't believe the media was dumb enough to suggest otherwise. But I guess you have to sell papers. And movie tickets.

When I first heard that Oliver Stone was making World Trade Center and Paul Greengrass was making United 93 I shuddered. "Why?" But as many have noted art always gets around to responding so "Why not?" is also a valid question. I went to see United 93 about a week after it opened on a spur of the moment whim. I hadn't really wanted to see it or relive that day but I had heard the good buzz --make that feverish raves-- from the reviews on opening weekend and knew I would eventually see it. But I wasn't sure I was ready to sit through it. In fact, I bought a ticket to something else. Just outside the theater door, I abruptly changed course and went to United 93 instead.

At this point it would be fair for you to suggest that I'm just talking about myself and not the movie. Which is true: and also my point. For United 93 as a film strikes me as something of an empty vessel in which one places his or her own baggage. Aside from an unnerving and disturbing moment of prayer (with crosscutting to both terrorists and their victims, all of whom are praying, albeit for different outcomes) and the frequent verbal references to the snail's pace of the military, there is little in the way of a point of view. This is, for all intents and purposes, a straight faced reenactment. Not so different than the kind you see on television. It's less a film to my mind than a transport vehicle back to that time and place.

But as such a vehicle, United 93 is beautifully well constructed. The editing is sharp and concise. The choice of real time telling keeps the screws on tight for the film's 111 minutes. The performers, even the nonprofessionals many of whom are playing themselves in the air traffic and military sequences, are all solid and emotionally truthful. (For these actors in particular I imagine the shoot was an enormously cathartic process). Barry Ackroyd's cinematography features a lot of handheld camera work which feels appropriate to the story's immediacy and chaos but thankfully the film never sacrifices visual clarity for the use of it. All of the filmmaking tools, including the minimal but effective scoring by John Powell, add up to a potent two hours in the theater.

But to what effect?

I expect that all depends on you. We all process things in different ways. Judging by the early reviews many people feel that United 93 is a revelatory experience. For others it reads as a moving tribute to American heroes. For me it is an expertly made and well-judged reenactment of one piece of an excruciating tragedy but nothing more. I didn't much care for the film and I can't imagine watching it again. But, that said, I think it might be the perfect first stab at a 9/11 film because of it's vacant point of view. Its real time claustrophobia and close quarters aside, it's a roomy film. Audiences are free to place their carry-on emotional baggage anywhere they choose.


Glenn Dunks said...

hmmm. Nice review. It does seem that the way an AUDIENCE member would judge the film would be based on their own emotional hold on the whole events. Critics are gonna love it because it has all the things you mention and many critics base their reviews on those sort of things.

It's not out here until August I believe (with World Trade Centre in October) and my thoughts on it may be different. But as I said in my 2006 preview, I won't know my entire thoughts until I see them.

adam k. said...

That's a lot of praise for a movie you gave a C+... hmmm... it seems like your "American Splendor" of this year (a critically adored film that you didn't much care for, but gave a screenplay medal anyway).

Glenn Dunks said...

In my 2006 Awards predix I predicted it's only nomination would come in Best Editing. At the time of release I thought Greengrass may have been able to get a Best Director nod. I still think he could if he can ride the wave and if they have a well-timed DVD release.

But I bet they go down the Passion of the Christ route and let the movie speak for itself and don't do any Oscar promotions. And that's probably the best.

Glenn Dunks said...

Oh, and a D for V? Not even I was that harsh and I thought I was one of the film's bigger detractors. I gave it a C- (after originally giving it a C)

Anonymous said...

In reference to the media's blather about "Hollywood changing" after 9/11, I had to view that "discussion" with a skeptical eye. I remember all the shouts of producers following the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy concerning a curtailing of violence in the movies back in 1968.

RC said...

i do agree, a lot of the way this film is perceived has a lot to do with how you process it.

I loved it and had my owning posting about the film here:

Strange Culture: Open Letter to Paul Greengrass (director of United 93)

--RC of

Anonymous said...

I'm keen to see it, though I'm concerned about editing overload. I had problems with "Bloody Sunday" because of the lack of clarity with the visuals, and HATED "Bourne Supremacy" for the same reason, so I'm anxious about this movie following a similar directorial path. I would find it distasteful if it endeavoured to create adrenalin with its pace.


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