Ten years after its release, it is still strange that the film United 93 even exists. In 2006, no one was expressly asking for a movie about 9/11, certainly not a 9/11 movie from an untested director whose biggest feature to date was an as-yet under-celebrated action flick, and, when this exact release was announced, there were many who promised to avoid the presumably-exploitative film on principle. This response should not have been unforeseeable.
In the near half decade between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the release of Paul Greengrass’ film, American pop culture, particularly within the realms of film and television, exhibited our collective victimhood in its delicate confusion regarding when and how to peripherally observe the attack and its fallen targets. Major film projects—including Jackie Chan’s Nosebleed and the planned adaptation of the novel Survivor by Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk —were completely scrapped because of their subject acts of terrorism. Full episodes of TV shows were re-edited, rewritten, or essentially removed from syndication, including episodes of The Simpsons, Sex & the City, Rocko’s Modern Life, and Friends. Shots of the Twin Towers were digitally removed from major films, like the contextually wrong-minded Zoolander and the completely benign Serendipity. When period piece films like Gangs of New York or Munich pursued bare symbolism or geographic accuracy with archival shots or digitally recreated towers, the response in theaters was always measurable, frequently leaning closer to distaste than affection.
Many explained this media tap-dance as our country (and particularly the residents of New York) having to decide when it would be okay for us to enjoy ourselves again, and we have to think that was part of it. But it seems equally important now to accept that maybe it was more broad and psychological than that, that maybe we were subconsciously willing ourselves to forget all of it—the before and after, the attacks, the towers, the scars upon the land, the dead. Victims do that. Victims try to forget and pretend.
Victims also sometimes fixate.
While our country played a temperamental game of tug of war with artistic representations of 9/11 and the Twin Towers, we also, as consumers of cable and internet news media, hypnotized ourselves into a state of angry numbness revisiting the CNN clip of the second plane hitting the tower, a sort of skipping masochistic metronome. It is possible that this short clip might be the most seen clip in the history of all video format, even with today’s metrically-defined video-obsessive culture of Vine, YouTube, Periscope, and Instagram. The only 9/11 movie, real or otherwise, that piqued any interest in the American people was the live-captured footage of United 175 slamming into the second tower. In a very real sense, everything each of us know about that day and all that happened afterward and whatever personal political philosophies we each developed in reaction, we leaned upon this endlessly repeated image. So it seems almost strategic that Greengrass would use this existing footage and not a digital recreation or dramatized inside perspective right at the near-center of his movie, the narrative turning point 45 minutes in. Anyone who watches United 93 knows it to be building to this, and that knowledge is purposed toward what maybe we can only now, ten years later, recognize as the film’s cultural utility.
The opening scene in United 93 accounts for probably its most intentional cinematic portraiture. When we see will-be hijackers getting dressed and ready in their hotel room, they are presented without accusation. The shots hold for longer beats than those in the rest of the film, the light is more consciously arranged, the frame steadier. But the scene is absent of ominous music and the young men’s recital of Muslim prayer, offered in the clean rays of early sunrise, is presented as more sacred than threatening. Divorced of the audience’s knowledge of the day under investigation, these screen characters could just as easily be read as young and eager businessmen made nervous by an impending sales pitch.
The antagonist of this film is not a terrorist group or radicalized belief system or the regulatory institutions that did or did not fail us that day and thereafter. Rather, United 93’s “bad guy” is a simple sense of inevitability, the knowledge of the thing having already happened applied to the immediacy of its happening, a real-time first experience marred with a doomful clairvoyance in a viewing format that disallows intervention.
From there, United 93 is the cinematic equivalent of a story written in simple, declarative, present-tense sentences. The first half hour unfolds as bare and matter-of-factly as an uncurious business training video, scanning day-to-day airport operations, listening to small talk chatter of industry employees and patrons. There are no music cues, no replays, no flashbacks, no slow motion, no backstory, no editing tricks. There are no famous faces to color the film with familiarity or borrowed affection and no point of recognition to allow for the acknowledgement of the cinematic fabric. Even during my recent rewatch, I could not distinguish one recognizable performer in any role with the exception of a small part played by Olivia Thirlby. Nothing in the movie dictates the viewer’s experience with the movie, except, again, our forced remembrance of that day, which is enough to make the entire exercise feel akin to a thriller or a horror, all of that dread and anxiety borrowed from within.
And if the first half of the film is built from the growing stress of anticipation, then the film’s second half is an imposed panic attack. This is a controversial immersion therapy.
Before 9/11 was cheapened into a cultural product brand, before it sat as the perspective-in-residence within every branch of liberal arts academia and every field of criticism, before it served as the rationale pushing some of the most un-American legislation ever passed by our American federal government, before it was the go-to hook of abrasive protest rappers and the order-by-numbers drive-thru menu for insincere Country Western stars, before it ignited our country’s Islama-ignorance into a widespread fire of Islamophobia, before it was cautioned as the conclusion of yellow liberal cowardice or set as the marking post of conservative hoo-rah military over-reaction, before it made us hate ourselves and each other in ways that we really hadn’t before, before all of that war, 9/11 was just a date printed on a plane ticket. It was another day on the job. It was an unseasonably nice, clear, sunny Tuesday morning. And a few hours later, as we all committed that dark viral video to memory, it became 9/11, a thing that happened to every American. But in the narrow boundary between those two eras of history, the series of attacks was a singular event happening, in the present tense, to a smaller collection of even less fortunate people.
United 93 is a movie that is about those people in that transitional moment, the first victims who sometimes get excluded in our necessarily selfish processing of the events of that day.
Greengrass films the final moments of United 93’s flight, those moments in which it is speculated that the passengers may have fought back against their suicidal captors, in his trademark style, but here, “trembling cam” might be a more suitable descriptor than “shaky cam.” The cuts are quick, the frames unsteady, sometimes out of focus, occasionally ducking behind the screen performers and their blue chairs. Even after finding out the national severity of their current situation, the passengers are never shown discussing an elaborate plan as a patriotic duty, but rather, in a much more human and accessible line of logic, they mention survival. They mention getting home to their families. They mention wanting to live. They mention not wanting to die. Small acts of kindness and attempted comfort are observed between them (“This really kind woman handed me the phone and she said to call you”). A woman cries as she whispers The Lord’s Prayer while one of the hijackers more desperately recites a prayer of Muslim faith. What’s a bit harder to notice is the way in which John Powell’s score becomes prominent and functional in the final minutes leading up to the crash but not quite in the sense that standard movie fans are accustomed. There is something not just organic but biological in the accompanying composition. When the passengers make their final phone calls to loved ones (the script pulling the contents of these calls from recordings and testimony), the music is an almost atonal rumbling that recalls the intestinal discomfort that might be recognized by anyone who has ever received terminally bad news. When the passengers reveal that the on-board bomb is a fake, the fight to reach the cockpit is scored with deep, pulsing percussion that, because we know the outcome, should not be perceived as an effort to articulate desperation within the story’s stakes (the track, after all, is listed as “The End” on the movie’s soundtrack); but rather, it’s the emulation of a human heart losing hope, the terrified recognition of one’s final moments. The long string notes might register as the rush of blood that fills the ears in moments of excessive biological trauma.
The experience of watching United 93 to its unpleasant conclusion is a simulation of going down with the plane. It’s the simulated experience of dying, a necessary dying. In that sense, it stands out as one of the most empathetic of American films. There certainly exists no comparative filmic moment to pair with other national and global tragedies. Pearl Harbor, World Wars I and II, and the Titanic have all been attempted as grandiose theater, but nothing that placed the viewer at the point of impact alongside those who lost the most. United 93 is an exercise in 100% empathy. That much empathy applied to that much tragedy can feel like destruction, but it is a destruction we need, one which tears us down to the only foundation suited for the rebuilding that must take place if we are ever going to heal, to forgive, and to figure out what this all meant. Because we certainly haven’t yet.
Exactly one month and one week after September 11, 2001, I celebrated my 18th birthday. In a sense, 9/11 marks the thin border between my childhood and my adulthood—essentially all of my childhood existing in pre-9/11 America and all of my adulthood existing and continuing to exist in a post-9/11 America. There is no question that these are two different places and two different life stages. So the feeling may have been standard to the adult experience even before this historical tragedy, but it certainly feels like the former era made perfect sense while sometimes it feels like the latter makes no sense at all. But for a stretch during this my second watch of United 93, a revisit that I once swore would never happen, I felt the fingers of my mind wrap around a new thread of understanding.
There’s a pervasive sense of helplessness in United 93, but it quickly becomes something accepted rather than grieved. Having to witness what we cannot change, perhaps through Greengrass’ expedited steering through all five Kübler-Ross stages, quickly allows for the viewer’s merciful resignation. There is no horror theater moment of screaming better advice at the screen and no Mark Whalberg-brand revisionist fantasy about how one might have muscled that situation into a better outcome for America. There is, in fact, only one conversation that I wished I could impose upon the real-life characters of this movie. When the military characters begins laying the groundwork for everything that happened in the aftermath, when my invisible position in that present-tense experience presents the victims of 2001 already starting to adopt the vulnerable mindset that would allow their future (my present) to take its contemporary shape, that’s when I wanted to help.
When FAA Operations Manager Ben Sliney is first presented with information that suggests a potential hijacking, he lets it bounce off of him. “Hijacking?” he replies almost dismissively before trying to remember the last time our country had one. “Years ago,” he posits. “Back in the nineties?” My mind exploded. Not even a decade before and it’s not even on his mind! More time has passed since these attacks and now and we are still making a mess out of this!
When the room full of military officials begin phone negotiations for getting fighter jets into the city before they even understand the scope of the attack, I wanted to interrupt: It won’t help. What’s going to happen is already determined.
And when the movie ends with a title card announcing that military commanders were late to receive word of the fourth plane’s hijacking and that fighter jets were 100 miles away when the plane crashed in Shanksville, PA—a disorienting and out-of-place conclusive point that feels like a sort of bargaining chip for future enhanced military capability and authority—it made me wish I could reason: What difference would that have made? The outcome would be the same. And this hurt will always be a part of who we are.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures