The real question surrounding the release of “United 93” is not “too soon?” The question is “does it?” Does it denigrate the memory of 9/11 and its victims by turning their stories into fodder for the Hollywood grist mill? Does it have anything new or illuminating to say about the causes or effects of that horrible and defining moment in America? Does it give the audience some sort of catharsis or simply leave us exhausted? The short answers to these complicated questions are no, not really, and depends upon your point of view. But these are the questions that matter.
At the risk of sounding glib, what is the point of the “too soon” argument? The horse is already out of the barn. It would seem far more productive to grapple with the reality of what the film presents rather than postulate over the legitimacy of its existence. Debating the merits of a film leads to discussion, emotional release, and argument based upon concrete evidence. To claim a film has been made in too close a proximity to the event upon which it’s based requires the invention of a social yardstick, a barometer that answers with finality when the “correct” moment is. Should we wait ten years after 9/11? Twenty? Fifty? Until the families of the victims have passed on? Even then, there will be those who would refuse to see it. There is no such thing as the right time and wrong time to release a film.
There is, however, the right and wrong film to release at a given moment in time. Here, the “too soon” argument gains some legitimacy. With 9/11 still fresh in the American psyche, the concern over the appropriateness of a film’s content is more than legitimate. The particular story that “United 93” chooses to follow adds fuel to the fire. Chronicling the passengers aboard the film’s titular airliner and their heroic re-taking of the flight from suicide bombers aiming to crash the plane into the Capitol, “United 93” could easily devolve in the standard-issue plot of a Harrison Ford action flick. To reduce the events aboard United 93 to cheap Tinseltown cliché is more than distasteful, it’s criminal: the cinematic equivalent to those shameless shills who hawked World Trade Center t-shirts as Ground Zero continued to smolder. That’s crass commercial exploitation, and anyone who thinks of making that movie should, and most likely would, never work in Hollywood again.
I report with relief that Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” is not that film, not even close. Made without stars and shot with handheld cameras, Greengrass establishes his position early on as an unflinching and empathetic observer. “United 93” unfolds almost completely in real-time, from the moment the passengers step on-board the plane to the moment it crashes in the now-famous Pennsylvania field.
We experience the film’s events right alongside the characters, even as our knowledge of what is to come imbues every frame with an almost otherworldly dread. The non-responsive planes; the confusion that curdled into terror; those shots of smoke pouring from gaping holes in the Towers that, almost five years later, still stop the heart; all these details are presented as facts instead of plot points. In perhaps his most audacious choice, Greengrass (who wrote the film as well as directed) does not establish any one figure as the main character. We do not see 9/11 through the eyes of a firefighter or an air-traffic controller or a terrorist. We are observers, as helpless and bewildered now as we were then.
The question then arises: well, why would anyone want to experience that again? Greengrass’s vision is as clear-eyed and reverential as anyone could hope for, without ever really explaining its importance or necessity. By choosing to focus solely on the events of the day and forego any postscript analysis or commentary, “United 93” does not give the audience any fresh perspective on the events of 9/11, nor does it reveal any new insight into the motives of its perpetrators. We leave the theater with the same questions, the same unspecified fear and sorrow, the same respect for those brave enough to fight back against evil, that we brought in with us. Audience members searching for the director to instill a divine order in the chaos of Sept. 11 will leave in frustration.
Imagine, though, had Greengrass attempted just that? If you want to make a time-based objection, it’s hard to argue with the fact that the country and the world have not even begun to feel the long-ranging effects of Sept. 11. The social, political, and historical consequences will continue to ripple through the collective American consciousness for decades to come. A director with the gall to predict these consequences with any degree of certitude would discover their work fading into obscurity with embarrassing alacrity.
In this sense, “United 93” establishes just the right tone and point of view, given its proximity to the actual events. The focus isn’t on conspiracy theories or political diatribes, but human emotion, stripped of all guile and concealment. The audience becomes privy to quick snippets of conversation and private moments of terror, anguish, and finally fortitude. Greengrass makes no attempt to order what was inherently chaotic or make sense of the senseless. All he can do with any degree of truth is present the collective emotions of a tragic day, and the simple, unconscious heroism that arises from such extreme moments. He never shows this with more concentrated power than in the film’s final movement. Grief-choked final phone calls become paired-down arias of elemental despair. The final overtaking of the plane from the terrorists is not a composite of individual acts of personal sacrifice, but a collective uprising of fierce and unwavering humanity.
Moments like these give “United 93” its power and, ultimately, its importance. One day, we will be given a definitive cinematic statement on Sept. 11 (somehow I doubt it will come in the form of Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” this August, but who knows?), and “United 93” makes no attempt to have the last word. In a key sense, though, it writes the opening chapter to our artistic responses to 9/11 by appealing to our most basic and human instincts: good and evil exist; human beings are capable of both in equal measures; our love for others defines our finest moments and haunts our final ones.