Thursday, May 04, 2006

A Magnificent and Honorable Film

I just got back from watching United 93 at the local multiplex. When I drive alone in the car, I usually sing to music or talk back to idiot callers on talk radio. Tonight on my way home from the theater, I didn't say a word. I was absolutely overwhelmed with emotion, both from what I watched on the screen, and my own memories of that infamous day that is now approaching five years ago.

United 93 was shot in what I can best describe as a you-are-there style. The camera is a little shaky, and the background musical score was kept to an absolute minimum. The dialogue is not spoken in the usual way that you are used to in a movie. Screenplays bind dialogue to the plot. Characters use an economy of words and often only say what is needed to drive the plot forward. As I listened to the passengers and air traffic controllers interact with each other, I didn't feel like I was watching a bunch of actors reciting their lines. I felt like I was watching people have real conversations about seemingly meaningless things, and they even stuttered and stammered from time to time as people often do in real conversation. The events on board the plane were riveting and predictable enough, but what kept me spellbound for a good portion of the movie were the scenes involving both civilian and military air traffic control agencies. The movie brilliantly captured the slowly evolving horror experienced by these mundane people doing their mostly mundane jobs as they began to realize what was playing out on their watch. What made even more of an impact was that many of the major players, both civilian and military, played themselves in the movie. The writer and director of the film, Paul Greengrass, could only piece together a most-likely scenario of what was said on the plane itself because no one on board survived the incident. But the scenes showing air traffic control personnel were verifiable both because the people who were there are of course still alive, and also in many cases, they played themselves. I found this to be absolutely fascinating, and I tried to put myself in their place. Can you imagine having to act and recreate one of the most traumatic moments of your life? Do you think you could recreate the emotion and the fear that you genuinely felt at the time? The first scenes of air traffic control (ATC) show a bunch of people starting what is looking like just another day, and then little things start to happen. American Airlines Flight 11 won't answer back. Then it drops off the radar screen, then the World Trade Center is smoking. At this point, the ATC people can't even confirm that it was American Flight 11 that hit the World Trade Center. They are told that it was a light airplane. Heck I was told that too. The news reported it as a light airplane as I was watching the live footage as I was getting ready for work that morning. One look at the hole in the side of the building told me that was no light airplane. The ATC people said the same thing. One guy said, "A Cessna would have bounced right off that building!" The movie did a great job of showing the audience just how confused ATC was that day. Have you ever heard of Delta Flight 1989? ATC tracked that plane for a long time, thinking it was also hijacked. Did you know that quite a while that morning, ATC thought American Flight 11 was headed south toward Washington D.C. even after it was the first plane that morning to fly into the World Trade Center? All this confusion and mayhem, and meanwhile, planes keep getting hijacked. When the order is given to ground all aircraft over American airspace, one cannot help but wonder; were there other planes with would-be hijackers aboard who didn't get a chance to take over the plane?

The four hijackers are not portrayed as some Muslim Arab caricature like those bucktooth squinty-eyed Japanese that you see in old World War II movies. The hijackers are portrayed as very businesslike, somewhat nervous with sweat, but with the proper religious fervor that one expects from a dedicated Jihadi. No punches were pulled as the hijackers were shown stabbing a passenger, the pilot and co-pilot, and a stewardess in cold blood. It was also satisfying to watch the passengers - in a rage of animal survival instinct - do to the hijackers what you can probably imagine they did as they fought for control of the plane; no punches were pulled in that depiction either.

One aspect about this film that I liked better than the one I saw on A&E a few months back was that no time was spent focusing on any family members back home who spoke to their loved ones on the airplane. The whole movie takes place either in the airplane or in one of the air traffic control centers. The only allusion to family members of the passengers was when you saw a passenger talking on the phone. This kept the tension unbearable as you are stuck with the people who, even though they don't know what is going on, know more than anyone else. And they know that their destination is not an airport, but a building..

By the time the inevitable scene arrived where the passengers began breaking into the cockpit, I was shaking like a leaf. The you-are-there style continued to the end as no exterior shot of the plane was shown as it flew into the ground. Instead you see the ground approaching fast in the cockpit window as the camera is right in the middle of the fight to the death between the passengers and the hijackers.

It is almost a cliche that people, especially younger generations, don't fully appreciate the sacrifices made by the people that came before them. I have read so many stories of people who lived through Pearl Harbor and World War II shaking their heads as they read about the majority of today's schoolchildren not even knowing what two countries we fought in World War II, let alone know why we fought the war in the first place. But World War II was over 60 years ago. September 11, 2001 is just now approaching a mere five years ago, and yet I feel as if too many people have already reinserted their heads in the sand. When the first trailers for United 93 began to show in theaters a few weeks ago, movie-goers reportedly shouted at the screen, "Too soon!" Are you kidding me? World War II movies were showing in theaters while the war was still raging, and people think five years is too soon to show a movie about September 11th? To the contrary, we need more movies about September 11th. We need to shake people awake and remind them of what was done to our country on that day. We need to show photos of the people jumping from the World Trade Center rather than burning to death inside. The news media had no problem assaulting us with Abu Ghraib photos for months on end, but when is the last time they showed any video or photo footage of the jumpers or of the planes hitting the buildings for that matter. As far as our illustrious press is concerned, the events of that day have been flushed down the memory hole, and they only show that footage if they absolutely have to. After all, if they show that footage, we Americans might get (gasp!) angry at the cockroaches who did it too us, and the supporters and benefactors of those cockroaches as well.

Bottom line ladies and gentlemen, go see United 93 in the theater if you can, or otherwise rent it on DVD. It is hard to watch at times because of the scab it tears off, but it is a wound of which we need to be reminded.

Good Day to You, Sir

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