We’ve all heard the now-ubiquitous question about whether it’s too soon for movies about September 11. But here’s a more interesting one; why would we want to watch a recreation about one of the shockingly visible moments of the modern age at all?
Many people, apparently, don’t. Despite making more than it’s budget back, United 93 hasn’t done the business industry watchers expected after all the controversy.
Then there are the forum posts and blogs around the world that highlight the number of people intending not to see it. Plenty of people said we should have movies about September 11, but just as many said it was a horror movie they only wanted to live through once. “You’ve got to get these events under a microscope,” writer/director Paul Greengrass said about the need for a 9/11 movie during the film’s publicity, “and be dispassionate and compassionate about them.”
In United 93, he’s achieved both. Depicting the fourth flight hijacked on the morning of September 11 and the one many believe was meant to plough into the White House, Greengrass shows the terrified passengers and the fanatical hijackers both praying not long before the film’s inevitable conclusion. There’s obviously an irony to both groups praying to the same God for very different outcomes, but Greengrass achieves compassion because the film doesn’t take a stance stance on even such raw ironies, remaining passive and apolitical throughout.
It’s hard to imagine the political firebrand behind Northern Ireland docu-drama Bloody Sunday could be so objective, but documentary realism is Greengrass’ talent, and here he’s truly a fly on the wall concerned merely with telling us what happened as accurately as research has allowed him.
Even when the action shifts to the ground the movie has no time or interest for exposition, conspiracy or guesswork. The one line that might make you smirk and shake your head — that they can’t get hold of the President for the go signal to attack other hijacked flights — is just another obstacle for aviation and military people rather than a cheap dig at Bush’s AWOL mishandling of September 11.
Playing himself, flight official Ben Sliney has to grapple with too little information and a bloated, inefficient infrastructure. In a world where the US can deploy enough firepower to wipe a country off the face of the world in days, the most incredible thing we learn is that while hijackings were taking place, the powers that be could only rustle up two unarmed fighters — which were sent the wrong way.
If the desperation on the ground is palpable, on the flight it’s like a python around your neck. Maybe it’s the knowledge of hindsight, maybe it’s Greengrass’ technique, but you spend the whole film with a slightly sick feeling in your stomach, waiting to see how it depicts the culmination of such terrible acts and knowing you’ll be upset and appalled.
We learn almost nothing of the passengers, barely even most of their names. Whether it’s the subtext of the film — it could have been any of us but for the hand of fate — or a necessity of the clock-ticking urgency in the unfolding events, you’re almost glad you haven’t come to know them better because it somehow distances you from their fate.
In the end, movies about September 11 might be necessary to galvanise our sense of empathy. In a world gone mad with competitive materialism there isn’t much to connect us to people who suffer, a virtue that’s supposed to help us all stop doing such terrible things to each other.
Just like there’s a big difference between reading a statistic on teenage suicide and watching the heartbreaking brutality of recent Australian film 2:37, Greengrass will remind you that the carnage of September 11 is much more than a death toll figure on the City of New York website. If it stays the hand of a single would-be fanatical murderer, then United 93 is the best example we have of the transformative power of art.