Friday, April 28, 2006

United 93

I saw this movie earlier today. It's a frightening experience to sit through, and also as sobering as you can imagine. It does not feel heroic, as many feared it would. It comes closer to a classic tragedy, except that for many reasons it does not feel like any tragedy I've seen before. The experience is so fast, and the destruction so brutal, that there's no time for reflection, only time enough to feel pity for the protagonists as they succumb first to to shock, fear and confusion, and finally to depression and desperation. It is adrenalized and not helpless desperation; enough of them do rally themselves and take action. Yet it does not feel like action-hero heroism. These passengers are not trying to save others in peril. They are simply trying to stay alive.

I don't know why that should diminish their heroism. I don't know how it can be expected of people in their situation to give much thought, if any, to the lives of potential victims outside the plane, when inside they are reeling, physically and mentally, and barely able in such a short time to perceive their own intended fate and to implement a basic counter-attack. This movie makes it clear that the passengers on United 93 did not gather themselves stoically to throw up a defiant resistance: they were prisoners implementing a plan to overthrow their captors when it became clear that their captors had no intention of letting them live.

The terrorists, too, are humanized to an extent. I do not mean that their acts are made to seem less horrible. There are many ways that movies can strip away the grossness of crimes: the standard villains of Hollywood movies are glamorized in one way or another, while their acts are sanitized; and it is also possible to make sober movies that apologize for criminals or hide their faults while focusing on other parts of their characters. None of that occurs in this movie, because it is not typical Hollywood, and it is not a documentary delving into character. We don't get either the glamorized or analyzed character of the hijackers here; but we do see them fearing pain and death. We see the most reluctant of them, their hesitant leader, making an early call on his cell phone to someone to whom he says, in his native language, "I love you." When the passengers later make anguished phone calls with similar messages, you don't think back to the hijacker's call, nor is there any possibility of confusing the radical dissimilarity of the two kinds of calls; the later calls are the most touching moments in the film, while the first is not. All the same, there is a common human link here. Hollywood provides that common ground by making its villains attractive; this movie does it simply by showing, minute by minute, relentlessly, what happened, and showing that there was a bloody conflict on that plane, not just a simplistic resistance to evil.

It is, of course, disturbing to hear, even if only in untranslated Arabic, prayers to God. The hijackers are seen constantly praying, even in the midst of action; the movie actually begins with their prayers; and I think their prayers are also the last words spoken. I found myself regretting that for many people, the first they will hear of Muslim prayers will be these prayers, spoken by violent men in the midst of their violence. That is one of the great regrets I have about our time: that so many prayers are said in prelude to war and violence. It seems, when you read the papers, or watch a movie like this, that religion is being killed by its practitioners.

At one point, a direct contrast is made between passengers praying the Lord's Prayer, and some of the hijacker's own prayers. Perhaps it's best that the prayers in Arabic are mostly left untranslated, not merely because it preserves the passengers' point of view with regard to the prayers, but also because prayers to God should be presented when they can mean something positive. And I hope that someday we do have a popular movie which does that for Muslim prayers.

It's been said that drama cannot be made out of stories where resistance appears weakly or not at all, since drama requires conflict. Perhaps it's not an accident that our first feature film about that terrible day concerns the episode where resistance was greatest. Yet, as I said, it has not been made in this movie to feel like resistance, at least not primarily. United 93 is really a docudrama about the whole day: many of its best moments, maybe even a majority, are about civil aviation and defense employees witnessing the events and trying, unsuccessfully, to catch up with them. A docudrama does not need conflict the way that a straight drama does. Instead it can build tension by laying out the events as they unfolded, from the perspective of those who witnessed them. United 93 does that superbly.

I do recommend this movie, very highly. You will not simply relive 9-11; you will have new thoughts and feelings about it, and probably new insights as well.

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