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United 93 (2006)

Since this is my first “second” review on this blog, let me nip any potential criticisms in the bud this one time only (any future complaints will be pointed in this direction). My philosophy, unlike that of Pauline Kael, is that repeated viewings are as important – sometimes even more so – to appreciating a film than the initial experience. Of course, many of us watch movies more than once all the time, whether for a fun time with friends, to revisit a treasured experience, or, in my case from time to time, to clarify my thoughts on a difficult and unclear initial experience. Some films challenge our perspectives so much that a combination of hindsight and intense rumination is necessary in order to come to a firm conclusion on them, and I don’t like for any of my opinions to be something I am forced to “settle” on. Therefore, in any cases where a repeated viewing of a particular film yields a changed opinion on my part, a second review will be written; this will become my “official” coverage, but the original review will remain listed as a reference point. This site exists just as much for hosting my opinions as it does for tracking my grappling with the medium.

My full respect goes to Paul Greengrass for even mounting United 93 in the first place. My views are such that film is, at its root, more of an art form than a series of products, and that the relentless “too soon” cries lobbed against both this and Oliver Stone’s (as-of-yet unseen by me) World Trade Center are naively cynical about cinema’s ability to heal the wounds of a collective people through reflection and introspection. A more open society should have been making movies about September 11th years ago (which, to an extent, it has been on a metaphoric level, from the likes of Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg, among others), but nonetheless, to do so even now still risks a ruthless public flogging. Greengrass, however, felt it necessary to add to the collective dialogue through his medium of choice, United 93 being the ultimate offspring of his efforts. As expected, reactions ranged wildly, from James Berardinelli’s outpouring of praise (the film will most likely top his Best of 2006 list) to Slant Magazine’s Keith Uhlich’s damning “kiss of death”. Both are opinions I respect, despite, now having revisited the film, disagreeing with on different points and levels. Like so many unnecessarily controversial movies, I fall somewhere near the middle of the polarities.

First and foremost, United 93 exists to recreate the events on September 11th, 2001, in practically real time, the emphasis lying on the unseen conflict that took place aboard United Airlines Flight 93, the one hijacked airplane to crash before reaching its intended target (factually unknown, but suggested to be the White House in the film). This in itself is achieved with great proficiency, but United 93 stops at the level of straightforward docudrama recreation when such should be the platform for a greater inspection into the events of the day. In simple terms, the movies aims to – and succeeds beyond a doubt – at making the viewer miserable from start to finish, the cinematic equivalent of being raped continuously for two hours. This approach proves, sadly, to be a hollow experience; a gaping whole is left at the film’s core by the complete lack of illumination or even inquisition. United 93 doesn’t so much want to consider the importance of September 11th or our relationship to it in hindsight as it does convert it into the most unnecessarily torturous roller coaster experience Michael Bay never made.

The structure alone indicates that Greengrass’ ambitions outweigh his filmmaking skills; rather than opting for a completely singular experience relegated entirely to the events aboard the flight, the film cuts back and forth between the innards of Flight 93, the air traffic control headquarters in Boston, the FAA, and NORAD, inadvertently setting the film up for standardized (and borderline exploitative) thriller tactics. The respectful approach to the individuals themselves (despite aggravatingly unrealistic performances by the entire cast) ensures that this isn’t the case (the non-judgmental portrayal of terrorist and victim alike is perhaps the most admirable quality of the film, as it allows one to weigh the good and the bad on equal ground), but it’s not hard to imagine what could have been done with an approach less bound to convention.

The ultimate downfall isn’t that United 93 fails to give us any answers, but that it doesn’t ask any questions in the first place. The importance of September 11th is so immense that only generations of hindsight will be able to amply measure it, and for as relentlessly as the film inflicts the unforgettable events on the viewer all over again (in and of itself wholly acceptable), it doesn’t once attempt to ponder the significance and effects of these potent actions and destructive images and the ways in which they’ve changed the world (unacceptable). United 93 exists wholly in the moment, and in doing so it suggests that, even five years after the fact, we have to learn or grow from the attacks; this, sadly, is very much true, but that in no way permits the film to get off for its lack of exploration. The film, perhaps in fear of tarnishing the memory of those who died, opts for as apolitical an approach to the material as possible, yet by removing a crucial sense of social importance, it forgets that we're supposed to move onward and upward from the sacrifices that were made, and United 93 converts a potential act of growth into an unfortunate case of regression.

Note: My first-take thoughts on United 93 can be found here.