United’ we stand

Kyle Smith

Nobody wants to see United 93. It has something to do with how deeply personal most of the country took the attacks of Sept. 11, and how people don’t want to “relive” that day. In some sense, the trepidation that awaits the film is “exactly what the terrorists wanted” – to create a day so horrible that, nearly 5 years removed, we still can’t fathom the destruction.

Everyone’s going to want to get their two cents in on this one, so let me just throw all my cards on the table now: United 93 is a fantastic, fantastic movie. I came out of it stunned, later uttering to those around me that “it’s one of the best movies.” No need to specify a time period. I don’t think I’ve ever been moved by a film quite like United 93 shook me.

I usually comfort myself during violent films with the pleasant reminder that “It’s just a movie,” and that these people – as in the actual actors playing the roles – won’t really die. During United 93, the veil of fantasy is invisible. From the moment you see the people on the plane, you know that they will die, and you accept them as real.

United 93 counters this sense of unending dread with a largely procedural style that reminded me most of last year’s Good Night, and Good Luck. Most of the film doesn’t take place on the plane, but rather in the various air traffic control centers that were trying to figure out what was going on. Writer/director Paul Greengrass cast many of these roles by the men who actually played them that day, including the FAA operations manager Ben Sliney, whose first day of work was Sept. 11, 2001.

Greengrass’ overarching commentary on 9/11 is one of mass confusion, and his hectic, visceral style serves this well. Information is accessed in Boston and takes forever to reach the FAA, the military can’t seem to figure anything out, and nobody can find the Vice President. The film revisits those nuggets of misinformation: a “small plane” hit the World Trade Center, six planes have been hijacked, there was an explosion at the WTC, etc. United 93 rearranges our knowing perspective by dumbing us with chatter and dense military-speak. When the titular plane takes off (in a beautiful long take that is the film’s one peaceful visual moment), the frustration increases: There was no reason for that plane to have left the ground.

As soon as the buildings billowed smoke, people told of how the images of the day were like a Hollywood movie. It’s funny that as the first movie specifically about the attacks, United 93 is as un-Hollywood a major studio film as I can remember. There are no flashy effects, yet the attacks on the WTC are nonetheless depicted in harrowing fashion: The only visuals are television broadcasts, and the sounds of the crash are masked by the collective gasp of the FAA air traffic controller, creating a movie moment as real as any I can ever remember.

Hollywood has always been about love and heroes. In the American tradition, these abstractions are both equated with killing evildoers, righting wrongs, telling your woman you love her and walking out the door. To say United 93 dispels these myths is an insult, as the film is not at all concerned with Hollywood.

In the light of so much destruction and evil that was 9/11, no one believes there were knights in shining armor who saved the day. No one wants a John Wayne to fight for his country. That model of heroism – of storytelling – is obsolete and unsatisfying. We cannot have fiction rescuing our realities.

What movies can do – that photographs only momentarily capture and that literature only occasionally describes – are depict moments of truth. Imbued by our hindsight, fueled by our morbid curiosity, United 93’s passengers act spontaneously and seriously in their makeshift plan to wrestle control of the plane. When grown men convene with stewardesses to discuss a plan of action, even their idle conversation is emotional. When the passengers make their last calls, they’re alternately calm and terrified, a reality captured without a drop of voyeurism or exploitation.

The cumulative effect is a sense of true love expressed by nameless people to anonymous loved ones, and of true heroics reduced to the minor acts heroism entails – pushing, yelling, lashing out, and, in some regard, failing. It is the only kind of heroism I’ll ever know, and the only love I’ve ever experienced.

I always felt that I cannot fathom the destruction of not just Sept. 11, but the other atrocities, major and minor, that befall the globe. Hurricanes, genocide, child abuse, poverty – more evil, ill will, and bad fortune then I’ll ever understand or want to understand. Regardless of my empathy or my inability to help all those who suffer, memorials like United 93 exist to venerate the dead and the living. It is an essential document of humanity.

Communication senior Kyle Smith is the PLAY film columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]