Friday, September 09, 2011

United 93 (2006)

France/UK/USA, 111 minutes
Director/writer: Paul Greengrass
Photography: Barry Ackroyd
Music: John Powell
Editors: Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson, Christopher Rouse
Cast: J.J. Johnson, Ben Sliney, Gregg Henry, David Alan Basche, Christian Clemenson, Becky London, Trish Gates, Cheyenne Jackson, Chip Zien

There are no surprises or twist endings to this one, of course, though a narrative film on these lines, with its dispiriting last shot of a farm field rushing toward the camera though a jet airliner's windshield, even if our memories could all somehow be sanitized of these events we know so well, would likely feel jarring—perhaps even like one of those feel-bad cheat endings popular in less hopeful times, such as the ending of Night of the Living Dead. But from the first image here of Arabs in a motel room early in the morning praying and dressing, viewers pretty much know exactly what they're in for, or certainly at least the endpoint. It's thus tempting to turn away from this, but the fact is that it's really a very fine picture, effectively working on a number of levels. It's worth seeing any day of the year.

I hadn't actually intended to do anything about the 10-year point of 9/11—if you follow this blog in any way you already know that the one thing it isn't is timely or current or, dare I say it, relevant. It's basically all mapped out weeks and sometimes months in advance because I have learned through trial and error that I am just no good at staying in front of the leading edges of history. I didn't even realize this one would fall so close to the date until earlier this summer when I was penciling in the September items. But there it was and here we are, and I believe I will stay to form by simply noting the occasion and moving ahead with the review.

It's actually one of the ways this picture works best. The least I can do is aspire to do something like the same. Its virtue is that it's neither grinding away on some convenient point—American heroes! In action! On a dark day!—nor is it wallowing in attempts to manipulate emotions, whether that would be rage against evildoers, compassion for the victims, or simply gazing across the abyss that separates us now permanently from such trusting, innocent times, even at 10 years still so close it feels as if one could reach out and touch them, those good old 20th-century times. It doesn't set out to do any of those things, yet it manages to accomplish them all, and more.

The strategy is simple. It takes on the trappings of a documentary, down to the now-so-popular handheld verite-style camera, and stays focused as much as possible on facts that can be verified, following the terrorists and the victims and the various authorities at their stations, civil and military, as the morning of September 11, 2001, unfolds. It is concerned primarily with the flight of its title, United 93, which departed Newark, turned back somewhere over Ohio in a southeasterly direction, and eventually crashed in an empty field in Pennsylvania. No one survived. But it necessarily involves all the other events as the pattern of the day emerged for one and all to see.

At times it's excruciating, knowing what we know, to watch these people trying to figure it out. Air traffic controllers are simply puzzled when the airliner for flight American 11, which by that time they knew had been hijacked and they were tracking closely, just disappeared from their instruments over lower Manhattan. Later, in the confusion, they have some reason to believe it changed direction and that they are once again tracking it. Other flights are believed to have been hijacked, then not, then yes again, then not. On some level, they know what is going on, whatever their mistaken instruments or perceptions are telling them. The early reports that it was a small plane that hit the first tower of the World Trade Center are belied by the gaping hole and billowing smoke they are shown looking at on live TV, and they know that too, and they keep trying to figure it out, keep arriving at the unbelievable conclusions and pushing them away again.

As happened on that day, hundreds of thousands or more were watching in real time, including many of these authorities, when the second airliner crashed into the second tower. Part of the shrewd design of this picture is that the actual footage of it from the day can be slipped in at the right moment and a sense of what it had to feel like for those authorities trying to manage air flights that today thus obtained.

All this is quickly sketched in as the back-and-forth crosscutting between these events and the quotidian boarding and preparations and inevitable delays and finally the eventual takeoff of United 93 proceeds. One of the saddest and most effective moments of the entire picture is the way it lingers on a long shot of the jet taking off.

Eventually the focus of the second half necessarily comes to rest on the events of that flight, as the terrorists delay and quietly fuss among one another and finally put their plan into operation. Here is where Paul Greengrass's strategies really begin to pay off, working the handheld camera and swift cuts in the confined space as the violence erupts and eventually the reality of what is happening dawns on the passengers and they begin to plot what to do.

By all the evidence these were brave men and women, thrust into a situation they never could have expected and then coming to rise to the occasion. The catalyzing moment appears to have been when they realized the pilots had already been killed, and as they began to get word of what was happening that day on the ground via the onboard telephones and cell phones they used to call loved ones. The horror of it all is as plain as day.

Yet for all the heroism what moves me most here, and continues to move me most, are the calls they made to loved ones to say goodbye. In the space of an hour or two they had already moved into something like the era we have been living in for the past 10 years, and they knew it, and in these phone calls you can hear it. And you can also sense the futility they feel at trying to explain it, how much had changed in such a compressed time, when the people they were calling may not have even been aware yet of the disasters underway in New York City and Washington, D.C., may have just been out walking the dog or running errands and oblivious. It's wrenching to see them try, even knowing that the hour of their deaths had arrived.

Scheduling note: Back to the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (TSPDT) selections next week and through the end of the year.

1 comment:

  1. I read a newspaper article a fews years ago now containing interviews with some of those who had received the phone calls from passengers on the plane. Their accounts were some of the most emotive stories I have ever read and experienced.