Let's RoleREview: United 93
I had the date of April 28 circled on my calendar for weeks. And when my car broke down earlier this week and became unavailable, I didn't let that stop me. I walked, six miles round trip, to and from the multiplex where United 93 would be shown. I didn't do this because I wanted to see the movie. Nobody wants to see a movie like this; we already know it won't have a happy ending.
I was compelled to see it.
Two September 11ths ago, I visited the temporary Flight 93 memorial. It is every bit as moving as going to Gettysburg Battlefield or Arlington National Cemetery. But, tremendous as it is, what the memorial has in patriotic glory it lacks in gritty realism. I'm never one to shy away from waving the flag, but seeing the Stars And Stripes and the phrase "Let's Roll!" emblazoned everywhere you look at the memorial site doesn't exactly lend you to stop and consider the awesome, earth-shattering events that happened there, the way the far less decorated places like Gettysburg and Arlington do.
Last September 11th, I watched the amazing docu-drama The Flight That Fought Back on the Discovery Channel. It, too, was gripping and powerful, depicting the final voyage of Flight 93 in meticulous detail. But most of the purpose of the film was to create a fuller picture of the forty people onboard who sacrificed their lives, relying on extensive interviews with surviving family members. Despite the painstaking completeness of the documentary aspects, it still didn't quite feel real: between weaving back and forth from the story to the backstories, and the narration (though excellently done) by Kiefer Sutherland, it simply couldn't capture the primal, basic fear of the situation in its entirety. It was reality, but coated with a part-Steven Spielberg, part-60 Minutes sheen and bookended with reminders to contribute to the official Flight 93 memorial.
Both the real place and the realistic drama were stunning and remarkable, but left just a tiny twinge of the antiseptic, unreal nature of observing an event after the fact.
But how could United 93 have been any different? It, after all, has debuted nearly five years after its subject matter occurred, and it couldn't possibly be based on all completely true events since nobody really knows what exactly happened in those frantic final moments, and it explicitly said that in some cases creative license was substituted for historical accuracy.
September 11, 2001 was a day of fear and chaos, both for the people on board the planes and those who witnessed it from the ground. United 93 doesn't back away from this agony one bit: from the moment the first batch of terrorists hijack American Airlines Flight 11 to the final plunge of Flight 93, every frame of the movie has the same disjointed, surreal quality that perfectly encapsulates the raw havoc of that dark morning.
It doesn't tell a story so much as it simply lets it unravel itself. We are told preciously little about the heroes onboard the plane. Most are never even introduced to the audience by name. They were strangers to each other, therefore they are strangers to us. Meanwhile, the air traffic controllers and the military commanders frantically attempt to regain control of the situation amidst the jumble of thousands of planes in American airspace, not learning the full scope of what was happening until they saw it on CNN.
But the most brilliant element of the film was the performances, which felt utterly and undeniably real, because they were: the pilot and co-pilot were played by actual pilots, one of whom was a United Airlines employee; two of the five flight attendants were played by actual United flight attendants. And nearly all of the ATC and military personnel were played by themselves (including a brilliant turn by FAA Operations Manager Ben Sliney, whose first day on the job was 9/11).
Nothing, however, could have topped the accomplishments of the actors playing passengers onboard Flight 93. None of them are big-name stars, which goes against the trend in virtually every other blockbuster movie, but a story like this can't have one superstar sucking up all the screen time. They worked without a script, improvising their roles in the tragedy based on biographies of their characters and, in many cases, one-on-one communications with the families and friends of the people they portrayed.
How, then, could that be real? Because everything that happened on Flight 93 was itself improvised, when a group of individual Americans decided on their own to command their own destiny armed only with their wits and whatever makeshift weapons they had available. What really took place onboard Flight 93 can never be known; the closest approximation we can get is to have forty seperate people ad-lib their roles as the ad hoc citizens' brigade. A "Hollywood" treatment would probably have mentioned that, say, Mark Bingham was gay, in order to demonstrate the diversity of the random assortment of passengers who boarded that flight from Newark. But it's not the details that matter, it's the core of the story, and this movie strips everything else away. It is visceral, it is completely unrefined, and it is the absolutely perfect depiction of the sheer and abject horror of that fateful day, and also the absolutely perfect memorial to Flight 93's innovative, spontaneous counterstrike against the nihilistic forces of darkness.
Paul Greengrass, who directed and wrote what few parts of the film that were actually scripted, also deserves commendation for his production. Most of the cinematography is bare-bones minimalism at its finest. Far from being the pornographic jingoism many outraged people feared, the film turned out to be quite stripped down, focusing more on what happened than what it means. A couple of times he lapses into Hollywood cliché: for instance, shortly after taking off, Flight 93 passes close enough to the World Trade Center for the pilots to prompt passengers to look at the Lower Manhattan skyline out the windows to their left. Two problems: Flight 93 was supposed to be headed west, from Newark to San Francisco, but the World Trade Center is several miles east of Newark International Airport; furthermore, delays at Newark forced a 47-minute postponement of Flight 93's takeoff, scheduled for 8:00 AM; by then American Airlines Flight 11 had already crashed into WTC Tower One.
But he can be forgiven for this, as well as those well-known details about Flight 93 and its passengers that were not in the movie. The passengers famously took a vote on whether or not to storm the cockpit; in the movie, the decision to rush the hijackers was much more spontaneous and frantic. Todd Beamer's impromptu battle cry of "Let's roll!" was downgraded to just a hurried murmur: Let's roll, c'mon guys, let's go already. And the final scenes show a frenzied struggle for the aircraft's controls; but according to the 9/11 Commission, the hijackers brought the plane down before the passengers could breach the cockpit.
Despite the factual inaccuracies, what United 93 leaves you with is still reality, cold and violent and awful. There are no rallying cries, no uplifting speeches, no authoritative characters whose sole purpose is to explain to the audience that everything will be all right. When the passengers finally jump the terrorists, it is brutal and gruesome. Jeremy Glick, a collegiate champion in judo, is shown breaking a hijacker's neck; the terrorist who had strapped a fake bomb on his chest was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher. Greengrass uses mostly handheld cameras, placing the viewer in the center of the carnage. And when the plane finally does descend into a remote, empty field in Pennsylvania, the camera POV spirals rapidly into the ground. And then there is silence. It doesn't fade to black. Nothing fades in this movie. It jumps to black.
I wept when I went to the Flight 93 memorial, and I flat-out bawled when I watched The Flight That Fought Back. But I couldn't cry during United 93: there was simply no time. When it's over, you feel like you've been kicked in the gut: Numb. Shocked. Dumbfounded. Very much like I felt on a certain late summer morning five years ago. And the credits roll, in simple black and white, with subdued low music behind them.
I didn't want to see this movie. It was horrifying and disturbing, but also phenomenal and brilliant.
I walked six miles to see it. It was worth every step.
UPDATE 5/1 3:55 PM: Ace and Charles apparently haven't seen it yet, but I posted comments with a link here, so I oughta bounce it back to them. Allah, in his new gig at Hot Air, posted a round-up of reviews, of which the best by far is Rick Moran's.
UPDATE II 5/1 5:49 PM: Oodles of kudos to Mrs. Peel, Skylark of Valeron. She's hot, nerdy, has an awesome blog name, likes my review, and linked to me? I'm in love. Wait . . . "Mrs. Peel"? Damn. She's taken.