Friday, May 05, 2006

United 93

In a theatre virtually empty, I saw the film United 93 last night. I don't really know what I was expecting. But I can tell you I have never in my life before seen anything quite like it.

On the off chance you haven't heard of the film yet, it's a fact-based portrayal of the events leading up to and during the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco on September 11, 2001. This was the "fourth" flight, the one that did not reach its intended target, but crashed in Pennsylvania.

Since what occurred is essentially a matter of historical record, I feel I can discuss the movie without fear of "spoilers". It opens with the four hijackers making their preparations. They are frightened, uncertain, hesitant, but in the end, resolved to their mission. None of this is surprising, but if you go into the movie expecting steely-eyed, cold-blooded cardboard villains, you're going to be surprised. These are men shown overcoming their natural inhibitions to sacrifice everything to make their point. Exactly what that point was, what they were hoping to achieve, demonstrate, protest, or illustrate by their actions is not something addressed by the film. Only their actions (or likely actions) are.

This is a hard movie to watch; you sit in your seat like Casandra, knowing what's going to happen, but powerless to intervene and prevent or change events. You see the pre-boarding passengers in the airport lounge, just as the hijackers do, knowing they are doomed. These are their last casual moments, their final hours, the last sweet instances of normality.

Remarkable, too, is the depiction of what was going on in air traffic control centres up and down the eastern seaboard that day. The initial disbelief, to the point of mirth, with which the first suggestions of hijacking are greeted when sister flight American Airlines 77 goes quiet and deviates from course. From there it builds, with the morning getting stranger and more alarming, with no end in sight. It's hard to remember now just how open-ended and uncertain we were that morning, but this movie brilliantly returns us to those moments, that terrifying sense of what's next, how big is this, what is going on? Nobody knew. Stories were wild. And that's captured exactly in this film.

The tension in the movie builds in an ironic inverse proportion to what the the people of the day felt. Knowing all, I found myself, like the hijackers, more and more tense as the first half of the movie progressed. Waiting for what I knew would happen, to happen. The tension breaks when the hijackers on United 93, led by a hesitant man whose hand must be forced by his cohorts, finally make their move. This is where the terror begins for the passengers... but oddly, it's where I felt a moment of relief. Okay, it's happened. I knew it would happen. Here it is. The passengers, the hijackers, the ground controllers, the NORAD crews... even if none of them has the whole picture, they're at least now all on the same page. United in crisis. From there, the tension begins to build again, slowly, as the passengers come to grips with the situation, only to erupt fully in the last moments of the film. Through the modern miracle of cellular communications, the passengers become aware of the World Trade Center and then the Pentagon strikes, and realize they will not be landing, they will not be ransomed, they will not be set free or come out alive if events continue to their conclusion. Good-byes to families are spoken from the sky, as though they were already in Heaven. And then the passengers act. I guess we'll never know for sure, since everything in based on cockpit noise and the erratic motions of the plane itself, but in the movie, they come close, so heart-wrenchingly close, to salvation. If only.

The movie never gets into the wider political and social aspects of what went on that day. To do so, really, would be to inject a partisan aspect to the film that would not really serve its intentions, which I believe are simply to portray, as accurately as possible under the circumstances, what we know or believe to have occurred that day, lift it from the merely dry and academic rote of historical chronological events, and set it into a human context. I found myself strangely empty of passions at the end. I drew no conclusions. I simply felt sorrow. Regret. Frustration.

Largely acted by (and I hope the actors will forgive me) unknowns, and in some cases by the actual people on the ground, with no big names and familiar faces to intrude and rob the movie of the anonymity from which it derives its authenticity and power, this movie deserves the Oscar, if any movie I've ever seen does. It feels more real than real. There are no big heroes, no ridiculous antics, no one-in-a-million chance saving moves. All you know is, these were ordinary people. Any one of us could have been there. And we would have been just as scared, just as powerless, and in the end, just as gone.

Now, if only Hollywood finds the guts to make a similar movie about civilians Iraqis huddled in their defenseless homes on the night of March 20, 2003. But I don't imagine that's in the cards.

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