Monday, May 01, 2006

United 93

by Brian
I saw United 93 yesterday, and in a lot of ways it's really quite stunning. After watching Bloody Sunday on Saturday (more on that in a bit), it's apparent that director Paul Greengrass is a master of this kind of lean, documentary-style approach.

One of his decisions that has the greatest payoff is using a lot of the air-traffic controllers and FAA types play themselves. Most of these people are not talented actors, but their presence lends a kind of authenticity that was apparent even though I did not know who they were until after the film. And that decision by Greengrass is representative of the movie as a whole: honest and real, with none of the Hollywoodization that the film’s critics feared. And the contribution of the actual people involved is a direct rebuke to the “Too-sooners”, whose numbers and passion were almost certainly greatly exaggerated but who nonetheless generated a ton of press.

And the film succeeds on a purely visceral level like few films I can think of, which is all the more impressive because it’s directed with an integrity few action films can afford. Like I said, the film eschews most of the conventions of Hollywood movies; almost every shot in the movie is limited to the point of view of its characters. Greengrass uses no gimmicks, no fancy camera effects, nothing to take us out of the moment. There’s no buildup and no payoff, just an unbroken chain of events. No doubt this is some of the boldest filmmaking we’ll see this year.

And yet ….

Thinking about it afterward, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. Because there’s no character buildup, there’s naturally an emotional detachment from the people in the plane. I think the movie is almost a little too straight-forward for its own good in this regard. It’s clearly evident that the filmmakers feel a great deal of empathy for these people, but it was also evident that Mel Gibson, for better or worse, felt a great deal of empathy for his subject in The Passion of the Christ two years ago. Sometimes directors’ attitudes just aren’t enough. Don’t get me wrong, this is obviously a superior film to Passion, and I understand that this is completely in keeping with the aim of the film to put you on that plane.

However, in the end, I question that aim. In Bloody Sunday, Greengrass uses the same style to put us in the middle of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1972. That film benefited greatly from James Nesbitt’s performance as MP Ivan Cooper. We see very little of the events outside of the buildup to the civil rights march and subsequent massacre, but even in these scenes Nesbitt is able to create a character; we see him passing out flyers advertising the march, dealing with the press, trying to calm the more militant factions of the town, etc. It’s not much, but it’s enough to give the film an emotional center, and it feels no less honest than anything else in the film.

United 93 is, I think, missing that center. We don’t need to see much about these characters – I hate obvious sentimentality as much as the next cynical asshole – but we can’t relate to people we don’t know. This is unquestionably a deeply respectful and tremendously effective film; I don’t want to make this sound like a negative review, because it’s not. But I can’t help but feel that the sum of this movie amounts only to a top-notch virtual reality thrill-ride, and isn’t there more to what happened on that plane than that?


Blogger Count Olaf said...

Perhaps he (dir.) was getting at the fact that most of the people on the plane really didn't know each other either. We may know more about them (because of seeing their phone calls, etc..) than their aislemates will ever know....yet it was enough to get them to work together to "bring it on."
Of course..I won't have my opinion until I watch it on it's merely conjecture on my part

5/01/2006 05:27:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

I might be lumped in as a "too-sooner," though upon reflection it's more like "do I really want to see that?" Most of the people I know feel the same way, so I question Brian's assertion that this view has been exaggerated.

Anyway, something I thought of during our last go-round on this that I never posted, but which someone who has seen the film might be able to comment on: how different is this film from what a really well-made 1968 film on the assassination of President Kennedy would have been like? And how do you think this film will be viewed in 40 years?

Oh, god, suddenly I'm imagining a version of United 93 in black-and-white, directed by Stanley Kubrick, with narration by Art Gilmore or someone like that. The Killing (the plotting hijackers) meets Dr. Strangelove (the plane that must be stopped)--yes!!!

Okay, I'm becoming silly. I don't intend to denigrate the film at all. It's probably very well-made. And maybe someday I'll feel like seeing it.

5/01/2006 06:10:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I might be lumped in as a "too-sooner," though upon reflection it's more like "do I really want to see that?"

Isn't that a totally different reaction, though? It's saying "I don't want to see that movie" vs. saying "they shouldn't have made that movie."

Perhaps he (dir.) was getting at the fact that most of the people on the plane really didn't know each other either.

Yeah, I would agree that this is clearly the case. But it's impossible to really make us feel like they did, right? We know how it ends. And unlike them, we know that it's all a movie, and that we don't have to make the choices that they do.

5/02/2006 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger jaydro said...

It's saying "I don't want to see that movie" vs. saying "they shouldn't have made that movie."

You're right, it is a different reaction--I was thinking about that after posting my comment, but I didn't want to obsess over it too much. So I'm glad you brought it up! ;-) Anyway, here's the thing: the first United 93 (actually then Flight 93) trailer I thought was too cheesy with the whole "and stood up as one" gung-ho tone towards the end. The second one I saw for the first time in a theater before Inside Man and my reaction to that trailer, with its footage of the plane crashing into the WTC, was definitely too soon. Too soon because I don't want to see that footage in an ad for a movie, and its effect was heightened in a theater. Sorry. Now that the film is actually out, my reaction is, do I really want to see that?

Does that explain things better?

We now how it ends.

I thought that was one of the great things about Apollo 13 (Ron Howard's best film, btw, not The Missing): we know how it ends, and yet I was on the edge of my seat. How horrible would I have felt if in the real story and the movie the astronauts had died? Hey, there hasn't been a shuttle Columbia film, has there? Not even a TV movie? There was a great Discovery Channel documentary that used a lot of footage shot by one of the Columbia astronauts who was a video geek.

5/02/2006 04:31:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

with its footage of the plane crashing into the WTC, was definitely too soon.

I guess I've seen that footage so many - how many hundreds? - times that it didn't really have much of an impact on me. There's nothing so horrific that systematic repitition can't dull the effects of.

Which is why I do tip my hat to Greengrass, because when that moment comes in the film it truly is shocking.

5/02/2006 04:43:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

It still has an impact on me that repetition has yet to dull, and I suspect it never will at this point.

Did you see it live the first time, Brian, or only later? I saw it live (the second plane) on TV, though the angles weren't as good as what was later shown, and in fact the first time I saw it, it wasn't even clear what had happened until they almost immediately showed a replay. I will never forget how I felt when I saw that--it was the most horrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

5/02/2006 05:38:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I only saw it later. I didn't know anything had happened until after the second plane hit. A friend at work came in and said two planes hit the WTC - I apparently got out of my car and into the office just a few moments before the first one hit. I didn't get that horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach until, listening to the radio at that point, I heard Peter Jennings say that the first tower had collapsed. Until then, I had no real way of knowing how bad it was.

I feel now that I should further explain my statement. Obviously, I haven't really been dulled to the sight of the plane hitting, since as I said, it's a very shocking moment in the film. I suspect that's because, in the film, the image has some context, and it's terrible and frightening.

But what I do greatly resent is the use of 9/11 images for no end other than to exploit the tradegy and people's emotions about it. I long ago decided to stop reliving that day any time someone wants to wave it in my face, and I'm sick to death of seeing the two-second clip of the second plane hitting used as shorthand for whatever news agencies, politicians or movie marketing departments want to sell us.

Which is all just a way for me to say that if you feel the United 93 trailer was exploitative, I won't argue with you. But the movie is simply not. Whatever problems I have with the film (and they're relatively minor), it's an honest, empathetic look at the events of that day.

5/03/2006 02:08:00 PM  
Blogger jaydro said...

Yeah, I actually got to experience the sensation of seeing a tragically horrific aviation accident turn into an act of brutal terrorism before my eyes. It was a very very weird day from then on.

I'll try not to go on and on here, but I was on vacation on Ocracoke Island, one of the more remote locations in NC accessible only by ferry. I was just on the verge of waking up when I heard some guys outside my door talking about a plane having hit the WTC. That woke me up. I turned on the TV (and I usually don't watch TV while on vacation) to see the picture of the smoking tower, and I of course cast my mind back to the 1940's incident of the bomber hitting the Empire State Building in fog. I was wondering how bad the damage was to the building, the TV news anchor was talking to an eyewitness at the site, and then there was another explosion which from the angle we saw seemed to come from the already-stricken north tower. Then the woman on the phone started screaming that another plane had hit the other tower, the anchor doubted her, trying to tell her that it looked like just another explosion from the first tower, but she was hysterical. And then they showed a slow-motion replay that clearly showed another plane coming in near a circling helicopter and hitting the other tower, though it was shadowy and much less clear than what has become part of the iconic imagery. And for a moment everyone was silent when they realized what was happening....

5/03/2006 05:06:00 PM  
Anonymous lora said...

I saw United 93 last night with a good friend who lost her uncle, William Cashman, on the flight. Frankly, I went because I was worried about her. We all agreed that the film was handled with great sensitivity. Unlike the A&E film (which was also well done), this film seemed to honor each passenger, not just those who made those heartbeaking cell phone calls. An example of the respect Greengrass showed for the families: in interviews with Bill Cashman's family members, they learned that Cashman, an ironworker, stopped into church each morning on his way to work to pray. In one of the two moments he is most prominently portrayed in the film, he is saying a quiet prayer. I can only imagine that each family member had a similar moment of recognition.
I felt the film was more than a "virtual reality thrill ride". I think it portrayed the helplessness and frustration of everyone on the ground, who saw this unfolding and were powerless to prevent it. I think it managed to portray the highjackers as more than sketches of evil; they were undeniably human, but not shown as sympathetic figures. I also think it was a good tutorial on how not to respond to a terrorist attack. The events of 9/11 seemed to unfold over weeks, but the actual acts were over in a short time. The need for a more swift response was certainly driven home by the real time portrayal of the day.

5/06/2006 07:16:00 AM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

I thought this film was very well done, and I learned a lot that I didn't know, such as the confusion at NORAD. I also was impressed with the amateur actors. I knew Ben Sliney played himself, but had no idea that there were so many others who also played themselves.

5/08/2006 07:47:00 AM  

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