United They Fall.
Oh, stop whining!
UNITED 93 was bound to bring out the bitch in politically-gutless 2006 America: any issue that invokes the oh-so-hip splash-appellation “9-11” is like a hog call to every uninformed swine with two cents worth of a knee-jerk conspiracy theory.
But beyond the whines of “too soon” and “disrespect” and “exploitation” is the sheer raw power of this breath-defying film experience. UNITED 93, unlike its detractors or those too disturbed to enter a theater without first checking Terrorist Alert colors to concede more usurpation of their civil liberties, displays no histrionics, no flag-waving and no political stance.
Here’s a suggestion: shut up and watch.
Writer-director Paul Greengrass delivers a film like nothing you will ever see regarding that fateful day of 2001 – there is no structural arc, no foreshadowing of events, no statements made that in hindsight will hammer home portent; no character studies, no stereotypes and no movie stars. We feel as alienated on the plane – amongst those vaguely familiar aspirin ad faces – as both passengers and terrorists.
Like any Titanic or Jesus movie, everyone in the world knows the ending. Yet every minute, every second is compelling. Greengrass somehow still convinces us that we are boarding a plane on a routine flight from Newark to San Francisco on September 11, 2001. When it is hijacked, we are almost as surprised as the passengers.
With only 37 passengers onboard United Flight 93 (and 7 crew), four Muslim hijackers dispatch the pilots and aim the plane on a suicide course at (it is presumed) the White House. Through clandestine cell-phoning, the hostages become aware of the World Trade Center Tower attacks, and deduce that they too are on a fuel-laden suicide missile. From innumerable accounts (from family of the deceased, military bases and air traffic facilities) Greengrass has pieced together this tale of what might have transpired after the hijacking. Though the passengers (we again presume) fought valiantly to regain control of the aircraft, it crashed in a Shanksville, Pennsylvania field, 150 miles northwest of the Capitol. No one survived.
What is UNITED 93 trying to achieve? Is it a movie, in the conventional sense of the word – an entertaining piece of fiction? A docu-drama? A tribute? A eulogy? As with all art, the answer seems to be different in the eye of each beholder. There are as many views terming it all these things, as there are those who misconstrue its purpose and then criticize it for not achieving what they wish it to achieve. For example, those considering it a “tribute” castigate Greengrass for intercutting scenes of the Muslims praying to their god with scenes of the Christians praying to their god, thus tarnishing the “tribute.” But Greengrass has crafted an altogether neutral account, an objective document of that dazed and confused day of infamy.Stylistically emulating Gary Oldman’s magnificent NIL BY MOUTH, Greengrass effects aloofness with non-intrusive hand-held cameras, flitting about the action and crash-cutting over reams of small talk and daily routine – from airport control towers, to the Muslim hijackers preparing for flight, to United 93 passengers, to military control bases. Considering many of the air traffic controllers play themselves (most notably, Ben Sliney, FAA National Operations Manager), there is surprisingly no slouching in the acting department, each performance evoking an onscreen sincerity long forgotten by politicians and movie stars.
There are no causes explored, no reasons explained and – most refreshingly – no moralism attached. UNITED 93 may be nothing more than an unstructured fiction based loosely on fact, but it may achieve nothing less than a nationwide catharsis.
John Powell’s understated score bleeds intermittently through the tension, and at one point, is heart-wrenching: in a long shot showing the North Tower billowing smoke, there is a single orchestra stab as Flight 175 slams into the South Tower. And then there is silence. That one stunning second is the only archive footage used in this film. It will wring the breath from your body. Whilst watching the awestruck participants onscreen, in their unmitigated shock, that day-mare becomes real all over again. And tears will come. My mind kept repeating Herbert Morrison’s soul-wrenching cries from the Hindenburg disaster, “The humanity, the humanity…”
humanizing the enemy: sympathy for the devil
And that is exactly what drives this film on such emotional gears: humanity. Somehow, Greengrass conjures pity for both passengers and terrorists, actually affording the Muslims more characterization screentime (little though it is) than the passengers; imbuing them with as much doubt about carrying out their task as any Christian would have – should have? – in storming a civilian village in Iraq; reciting prayers as meaningless as Christian prayers, in trying to convince themselves that their actions will be judged on a far greater altar. Like any Good Christian who believes in invisible guys running the universe, they are all merely misguided humanity. If you cannot feel empathy towards these mere misguided humans (whose Invisible Guy informs them that YOU are the fanatic), then are you not as close-minded as your Invisible Guy tells you they are?
Isn’t it utterly perverse that the religion that crows the most about tolerance – Christianity – has been responsible for the greatest number of cold-blooded killings in the history of the world? In Christianity’s holy war, the Muslims are just playing catchup.
Of all the people ranting for Arab blood in 2001, I witnessed only one man (an undistinguished American caucasian on a news broadcast) who suggested that beyond stopgap retaliation and impotent saber-rattling, it is America’s duty to try to understand “what makes them hate us so much.” He had a child in his arms. And I was happy for that child, who would grow up in an intelligent, questioning, and truly patriotic home.
religion: practicing random acts of blindness
Few realize that Religion is at the root of the problem – not “theirs” and “ours” – but Religion per se. Albeit, Religion used as a façade to disguise greed and provincialism, ingrained deeper than the darkness of gods. On both sides.
If both Christians and Muslims believe in only one TRUE God, and both denominations were praying to their respective deity on September 11, does it take a rocket scientist to figure that the Muslims devastating the Christians in a coordinated blitzkrieg means that God may, in fact, be playing for the oily-complected team?
Actions have always spoken louder than prayers.
If any real evidence in the matter of “answered prayers” could ever be collated, the results of all those Muslim prayers on September 11 should be incontrovertible.
Christians have long believed they held the monopoly on God’s affections because they look like him. But the image of an androgynous, caucasian savior is merely a modern re-imagining to accrue the demographic that seeded the world like a virus over the past few millennia – Rich White Men. Fact is, rather than looking like Aragorn, Jesus – if he was, in fact, born to a Judean woman in Israel – would have been the spitting image of Osama! Demon Est Deus Inversus (The devil is god inverted).
Is the War On Iraq, among other occluded reasons, merely just another unconscious effort to eradicate the last physical ties with the image of an Arabic Savior? The re-imagined White God metaphorically destroying the image of the Olive God. To ensure re-written history stays re-written.
we don’t need another hero: semantic recantic
The big picture of oil collusion and government duplicity (whether these things are real or imagined) never enters UNITED 93, nor are the passengers cognizant of such issues.
In hindsight, there are those that maintain the passengers “gave their lives in the name of freedom”; that they were “heroes.” No. They gave their lives in the name of trying to save their lives. And a “hero” is a person who has OPTIONS and yet chooses the hard road. These people were brave (maybe), courageous (maybe), but heroes? No. Yet there is nothing less noble in what they achieved – appending a falsity to their motivation is to make those left behind feel better about themselves. Much like Jackie Kennedy immediately trying to scamper off the back of the Presidential convertible when John F. was shot – it’s right there in the grainy Zapruder footage – and society applying the balm of rationalizing commentary that maintains she was “rushing to get help.”
By tagging Flight 93 as heroic and “the flight that fought back,” it implies that the people on the other planes, by “letting” their planes attain their targets, were cowards. Either that, or the hijackers on those other planes displayed more “heroism” than the hijackers on Flight 93, by keeping their crowds controlled. You can’t have it both ways.
In overcoming superior odds and opting to give their lives for what they believed to be a noble cause, by your own definition, doesn’t this make the Muslims who hijacked the planes – “heroes”?
It was this very issue that got political commentator Bill Maher sacked from his – ironically titled, it would seem – television show, POLITICALLY INCORRECT.
Even at the most obvious juncture to create Hollywood Heroes – Flight 93’s eventual crash – Greengrass avoids the temptation judiciously, also wisely eschewing gratuitous explosions (even the shots of the WTC Towers afire are almost incidental). Tastefully and powerfully, instead of a Michael Bay yellow-vermilion fireball cut from four angles and tweaked to Hiroshima level, the aircraft’s final impact scene is viewed from the inside of the cockpit, as passengers madly grapple with the Muslim pilot, as the plane tilts earthward, turbines and people screaming, and amidst arms and bodies frantically entangled, the ground swells up sickeningly fast with a gut-wrenching cut to black.
When Flight 93, a Boeing 757, struck the ground on September 11 near Shanksville, Somerset County, Pennsylvania, it was traveling at more than 500mph. It crashed upside-down at a forty-five degree angle. The 128,730+ pound Boeing 757 gouged a 50-foot-deep pit in a reclaimed strip mine. The ferocious force of this impact disintegrated metal, bone and flesh. It took investigators more than three months to identify the remains of the passengers and crew, and, by process of elimination, the four hijackers.
— Chasing the Frog.com “Reel Faces”
(The fact that pictures of the scene don’t show any airplane wreckage, rather a smoke-filled field littered with tiny bits of debris…and the fact that not even the vaunted black box was recovered… well, that’s another conspiracy theory altogether… so what did happen to all those passengers?… I’m just sayin’…)
military intelligence: throwing tax dollars at an oxymoron
Film writers thrive on lauding the American military as omniscient, omnipotent giant-killers – lethally meticulous and dangerously organized (PATRIOT GAMES, THE PEACEMAKER, SYRIANA) – able to identify anything with pinpoint accuracy half a world away via the use of global stealth satellites and ultra-tech hardware. The Real World military does nothing to dissuade this fictional misperception – just marvel over the MTV/STAR WARS élan of their latest ad campaign. By all accounts, these automaton warriors are the offspring of The Terminator and the Universal Soldier, with hardware that would make the Batcave’s supercomputers look like Speak n’ Spell.
When a movie like UNITED 93 shows military floundering in a “real world” situation, they – and we – must reconcile a massive paradox. Firstly, remember that this film is FICTION – Paul Greengrass would have been given only a limited amount of declassified information to piece together his story. So no matter the “chain-of-command” or “rules of engagement” protocol breakdowns portrayed onscreen, the inexcusable tardiness in response to the Tower attacks can only be attributed to one of two reasons: if they truly are as omnipotent and world-aware as they paint themselves to be, then there was, in fact, some kind of “conspiracy” restricting their retaliation – OR – they’re incompetent.
Which reason do their press agents feel more comfortable admitting to?
It is no wonder the subsequent moose-call to arms was taken up with such football hooligan savagery. To save face. We civilians cannot imagine how ego-crushing the Taliban’s decisive actions were on these career warriors who fancy themselves the incarnation of Superman and Einstein; these self-proclaimed giant-killers, brought low by a deluded, yet nonetheless determined faction who turned out to be giant-killers themselves.
Oh, but there’s so much more…
Why has no one considered what might have happened to those hijacked planes had the military intercepted them? Correct: double jeopardy. With no other way to divert their flight paths, the hijacked planes would have been shot down by American fighter planes! Killing American civilians. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” might ring true when a fictional Vulcan sacrifices his life for some fey actors, but try laying that line on the politically powder-kegged and frivolously-lawsuited America of 2001; that you were forced to cold-bloodedly gun down their innocent families on international TV because their planes might have killed thousands more…
Thusly, in weighing the sociopolitical ramifications, did the military actually opt to leave the planes to their suicidal flight paths? For in the case of suicide hijackers, there would be no way to sustain zero losses anyway, so letting them attain their targets would be the lesser of the two evils. It’s what the military euphemize as “reasonable losses” and “collateral damage.” Destruction perpetrated by the Taliban would give the American government fuel to throw on a nationalistic fire, which would not have flared up in empathy had the government opted to stop the planes by killing American civilians.
Due to the fact that governments, congresspersons and the military would sell their own mothers to wash their hands of culpability, this scenario seems most likely, and is probably the reason conspiracy theories surfaced in the first place – because of the fine line between inaction causing destruction and evasive action plausibly causing unforgivable destruction. By allowing themselves to lose the battle, the Bush Administration would win the people.
Semper fidelis, carpe diem or mea culpa? United Flight 93 was simply a bonus for the military: a problem which solved itself. Focus on the “heroism” of the passengers and get that spotlight off our devil-black agendas…
our pet goat: call him president
Amongst the bewildered furor at a military base, an official is heard frantically, “Do we have any communication with the President at all?” Though it was surely meant to convey the military attempting contact with their Commander In Chief – and as much as apologist Republicans hate to admit it – that line stood out like the proverbial pet goat. Who knew a gag could be wrung out of this grave situation at the eleventh hour?
The corollary question though, was not addressed: “And if we do get in touch with him, what then?” The country was mildly aware of it in 2001, but in hindsight we can state with some certainty that President George W. Bush fulfills a role not unlike that of a stinky aunt on your mother’s side – someone to tell news to because he’s there, while you yourself make any real decisions concerning that news, leaving him to entertain himself with flowery hats whilst spreading disinformation like brunch gossip.
If the government had no idea that the forewarned attacks would come in this manner (and a thousand splinter factions and internet sites would hotly debate otherwise), no one could be blamed for their confused initial reactions. Nonetheless, when informed of the second plane hitting the Towers, President Bush opted to spend seven motionless minutes gazing into space (in a world where ICBMs could reach American shores in less than an hour). Being provided information and yet refusing to act is more than criminal – it is a sin against humanity. In our media-saturated world, the President can no longer hide behind glibly mendacious press releases concerning his handling of this crisis, as the infamous, incriminating “Pet Goat” video shows him closer resembling that eponymous ungulate than the ostensible Leader of the Free World.
But had Bush’s advisors already assessed the above “reasonable loss” scenario and imparted that news to him? This provides insight into why Bush cannot give a reasonable explanation to the American public regarding his sloth – because it involves admitting to the strategy of allowing people to die in order to gain political momentum.
We had agreed with the (Sept. 11) overall commander Mohamed Atta, may God rest his soul, to carry out all operations in 20 minutes – before Bush and his administration could take notice. It never occurred to us that the Commander in Chief of the American forces would leave 50,000 citizens in the two towers to face those horrors alone at a time when they most needed him because he thought listening to a child discussing her goat and its ramming was more important than the planes and their ramming of the skyscrapers. This gave us three times the time needed to carry out the operations, thanks be to God.
— Osama Bin Laden.
(Did bin Laden actually say that? Sounds like retro-engineered bullshit to me, but hey, I’m just sayin’…)
By letting events run their course, Osama won the day – but Bush won another four years.
the film and the furious: what is lost is now found
Remember Osama Bin Laden? There’s that old gag about washed-up personalities: “He can’t even get arrested in this town.” With Osama, it is ironic to the point of civil war.
The original Bad Guy in this conflict (who actually took the blame for the WTC attacks – at least, that’s what the reportage told us he did), Bin Laden – initially exploited as an excuse to manufacture fear and pillage civil liberties – was quietly reshuffled to the bottom of the deck by the Republican administration in order to keep their pockets padded and their consciences black as the insides of rectums. Like the Environment and AIDS and Gay Marriage, an unresolved platform garners so much more political leverage. And it’s just plain rude to arrest your business partners while you’re still doing business with them…
For those who pule that this film came along “too soon,” I say, nay! Rather, perfect timing – on this third anniversary of “Mission Accomplished” – with the world free of terrorism due to Saddam Hussein (the head of al-Qaeda and mastermind behind the WTC attacks) safely behind bars; with inexpensive fossil fuels in abundance, purifying the atmosphere as we use them, and freedom of speech in ascendance, getting stronger with every congressional mandate against liberty; with tax cuts for low income households and free medical insurance…
If it was as perfect a world as the reigning government’s lies paint it to be, there might not have been any whining over UNITED 93.
By dambusting past the occlusions thrown up by the government (who are so bad at lying about their deficiencies that in trying to displace Iraq issues with benign issues, they unintentionally highlight other areas of their deficiency – insipid tax rebates, fake concern over illegal immigration), UNITED 93 jarringly opens the nation’s eyes, bringing the unresolved Taliban holy war to the forefront of our consciousness once more.
And just as America was settling into the complacency of pretending Saddam was Osama.