I saw “United 93,” so you don’t have to.
Which isn’t to say it’s a bad movie, because it’s excellent, maybe even great–original, innovative, riveting, heartbreaking, unforgettable. Many had feared that the film would be exploitative, but “United 93″ is exactly the opposite of that. In telling the story of the fourth plane on Sept. 11–the one that crashed as the passengers attempted to retake it from the hijackers–the filmmakers do away with all Hollywood conventions and opt for a documentary-style reenactment. We don’t see the characters’ back stories or their surviving relatives; no husbands kissing their wives good-bye for the last time, no lucky latecomer who just missed the flight, no orphans remembering their lost mom. Nothing, in fact, that we’d expect from a disaster-of-the-week film.
Instead, director Paul Greengrass tells the story in real-time, from just before takeoff to its tragic crash in a Pennsylvania field, jumping back and forth between the goings-on inside the airplane, the confusion among air-traffic controllers, and the too-little, too-late efforts by the military to retake American airways. Even the passengers’ rebellion against the terrorists is presented without adornment, not as some sort of macho militaristic battle, but as what it was: The last desperate, heartbreaking attempt by a group of doomed people to take control of their fate.
Watching “United 93″ was truly like re-experiencing Sept. 11. My heart started pounding the minute the plane’s doors closed, and it didn’t stop until after I returned to my office when it was over. Yes, this movie is a respectful, fitting memorial to the deceased heroes who fought back and prevented their flight from destroying the Capitol or another Washington building. Yes, I learned a lot about what these passengers must have went through, and gained some insight into how the air-traffic controllers and military officers reacted–sometimes as heroes, sometimes as bumblers, sometimes as both at once–to an unprecedented situation.
But is all of that a good thing? Do we want to go to the movies to re-experience the greatest American trauma of our time? Not me. Don’t get me wrong; I am not someone who thinks all movies need to be happy, and I believe that film plays an important role in how we as a society talk about and work through important issues. But I don’t see how this particular film furthers that conversation; it’s certainly well intentioned and very well made, but it ultimately fails to go deeper than the surface. And we’ve all experienced that surface–in endless news coverage and in our own horrific memories–too much already. I can understand showing this movie at the planned United 93 memorial or at Sept. 11 memorial commemorations. But as one of the choices at your local multiplex, it’s hard for me to understand why people would choose to bring themselves back so viscerally to that traumatic day–or what they’d get out of it.