United 93

August 17, 2006

Don’t expect to see United 93 on your airline entertainment program – this is a film made for terrestial cinemas. Even on solid ground, there may be a limited audience for Paul Greengrass’s harrowing docu-drama on the events of September 11, 2001. The film is so brutally realistic one can hardly believe that this is Hollywood’s response to the day that changed America – and the world – forever.

The most recent Academy Awards were dominated by films that took an enlightened approach to current events and issues, and it seems the trend continues. It is too simplistic to presume that Hollywood discovers its radical edge when a Republican president is in the White House, but there may be an equation to be drawn between the progressive degeneration of news into entertainment, and the new intensity and realism in contemporary drama. The success of films such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Outfoxed suggests that documentary is the new drama.

It was an inspired decision to put British director, Paul Greengrass, in charge of the first 9/11 film. Greengrass began his career as a documentary maker for Granada TV, and found his way to Hollywood to direct The Bourne Supremacy (2004), a superior thriller. The Bourne Supremacy was largely shot with a hand-held camera, conveying a feeling of immediacy that is maintained in United 93. In his blending of drama and documentary Greengrass owes an obvious debt to Peter Watkins, who pioneered the technique in films such as Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965).

The challenge was to make a film that succeeded dramatically, while showing due sensitivity to the events of 9/11. In the United States the aftermath of the tragedy created a prolonged humour-free zone. The usual bad-taste jokes that act as a release from tension were entirely absent. Even the release of the second part of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – The Two Towers – was delayed because of a possible association with the World Trade Centre.

9/11 was deemed both shocking and sacred – not simply through the loss of innocent lives, but because it struck at the foundations of America’s complacency, at its self-belief and triumphalism. When the iron curtain was melted down, it seemed that the United States was now the model that the rest of the world was ordained to follow. This was also, needless to say, the brief apotheosis of corporate capitalism – a happy mirage that was destroyed in a single day. The post-9/11 world is a more violent and paranoid place than seemed possible in that moment of millenarian bliss.

So how does a British director deal with such a loaded subject without offending his audience or lapsing into cliché? Greengrass’s solution was to make a real-time reconstruction of the events of 9/11 that flicks back and forth from air-traffic control rooms to the cabin of United Airlines Flight 93, the only plane that did not reach its target. Instead of crashing into the White House, United 93 went down in a field in Pennsylvania, after the passengers rose up against the hijackers.

The most powerful and touching aspect of this film is the way the passengers gradually realize the flight is on a suicide mission, as they learn about the WTC explosions from their in-flight telephones and mobiles. The choice between certain death and a slim hope of survival provokes them into action. But if this is heroism it contradicts every time-honoured Hollywood convention. The passengers act because they have no option, other than the passive acceptance of their fate. Greengrass gets us to feel this choice-that-is-no-choice with terrible vividness, putting ourselves in the passengers’ place.

As this is happening, chaos and disbelief have taken hold of air-traffic control offices from Boston to New York to Washington DC. In these offices Greengrass has enlisted many people to play themselves, including the Federal Aviation Authority’s National Operations Manager, Ben Sliney. In a twist that would enchant that modish French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard – who argues that we live in a world where simulations are more real than reality itself – for these amateur actors, the actual events of 9/11 were a rehearsal for the movie.

It is commonplace for those who have survived or witnessed a catastrophe to say “It was just like a movie.” United 93, however, is disturbingly like life – an accumulation of detail, a compilation of trivial, everyday incidents that acquires a slow-building undercurrent of menace as the clock ticks down to the final disaster. As in classical tragedy we all know what happens, we know that everyone dies. This awareness creates a tension that builds from the movie’s first frame to the last.

United 93 is one of the few Hollywood films where there is never the faintest chance of a Hollywood ending: no hope that the hero will save the day, and the world be made safe for Mom, Dad and the kids. But lest we believe it is the subject matter that precludes sentimentality, stay tuned for Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre, released in the United States on 9 August, but not due in Australia until October. Stone tells the story of two Port Authority policemen, played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena, miraculously rescued from the rubble of the twin towers. Forget the stark tension of United 93. Turn up the volume and savour the sound of violins, accompanied by cash register.

Published for The Diplomat, August,  2006

United 93
Distributed by UIP (release date: 17 August 2006)