28. April 2006 · Comments Off on How Americans Die: United 93 · Categories: General, GWOT, Pajama Game, That's Entertainment!

Several years ago, I lamented on this very blog, how no movies had come out of Hollywood post-9/11 that told our stories of heroism in the ongoing war against the forces of militantly jihadist Islam. I can’t find that particular entry among four years worth of tri-weekly posts, since I can’t remember what I called it, but I remember pointing out that the dust was barely settled on our WWII defeats at Bataan, and Wake Island, before Hollywood had rushed out stories focusing on the heroic resistance, and our national resolve.

Where were our stories in this new war, where was Hollywood— did our current entertainment moguls feel above the vulgar business of telling our stories, and processing our heartbreaking experiences, defining who we are, and what we are fighting against? Of course, pace the Danish Cartoons experience, it might very well be that our movie moguls and stars are as fearful as anyone else of a car-bomb at Wolfgang Pucks’, or the oh-so-subtle gentlemen from CAIR parked in the outer office, and just as prone as the national big-media to surrender pre-emptively, and refrain from producing anything that would piss them off… or encourage the great unwashed American public to embrace their inner Jacksonian.

I felt obliged to go and see United 93, since it was exactly the sort of movie that Hollywood ought to have been producing; they should have done about thirty to fifty of this sort (well, counting TV movies and film releases together), and started at it three or four years ago. Well, it’s nice that someone in Hollywood finally gets it… a couple of years late, but better than not at all. I did not go to it, expecting to have a good time: the ticket-taker said automatically as he tore my ticket in half.
“Enjoy your movie,” and I replied
“Well that wasn’t exactly my plan.” Poor man, there is probably a picture of him next to the definition of “prematurely aged, hopelessly out-of-touch, fashion-challenged movie geek” in some vast cosmic dictionary.

The theater where I watched it was eventually half-filled. It was the mid-afternoon showing, on a day when most people in San Antonio have had a half day, or maybe the whole day off because of the Battle of Flowers Parade (explanation of this in another post— it’s just a local holiday, ‘kay?) No idea of it would have been a typical or atypical crowd, but I did notice that everyone was fairly quiet before the movie began, and near to silent when it ended. It’s not a movie you go to for laughs, jollies and temporary forgetting of your current problems.
It opens to the sound of Muslim prayers, in the darkness before dawn on an ordinary day. Only the unsettling image of the hijackers shaving and dressing themselves, and being extraordinarily diligent about their early prayers strikes any sort of ominous note— that and the image of four weedy, dark-haired men, sitting uneasily amongst the people they intended to murder— gives a hint of what happens next.

It’s all one of those prosaic, ordinary working days, people going to work, doing what they do every day of their working life, everything routine, banal, swapping the ordinary sort of work-related remarks, small stuff, chit-chat, all about work and what is expected during the course of an ordinary working day. The Air Force has got an exercise on, that’s the only out-of-routine thing happening. And everything is so ordinary about taking an early morning flight to the west coast, all those plain, unglamorous, lumpish people on the same flight. I had begun to think that Hollywood was incapable of making a movie with ordinary-looking people in it, but on this occasion, the temptation to cast the blindingly-attractive actor sorts was resisted, with the result that United 93 has a very documentary feel about it, with no one in it that you remember having seen in another role, and another show. (The air traffic control staff played themselves— which lent enormously to the documentary feel.) No one is really named, aside from the pilots, and some of the air control staff, and some of the Air Force people— there is no distracting back-story for any of the characters… it is all just the story of the morning of 9/11, quick and brutal and to the point.

It all happens in something very much like real time; all the ordinary stuff on an ordinary morning; sitting around in the gate area, until called to be seated, the cabin staff going by, towing their bags and laughing amongst themselves. If you’ve traveled by air in the last thirty years, it’s all familiar, down to being dragged to pay attention to the safety briefing, although it’s something you have heard a hundred times before, and that is the gripping part— we’ve all been there, we can see it happening, and to people very much like us.

It’s a very claustrophobic movie; there are very few outdoor shots, aside from some establishing views of airport runways, and a couple of long exterior shots of the New York skyline, taken from inside a flight control facility. Otherwise, it’s all interiors, very tight and very close, almost painfully intimate, as 9/11 starts to get very weird and very un-ordinary. The jolting moment when the air controllers watch the second aircraft slice into the WTC tower is shattering… just as shattering as it was—or so I have been told— as it was to people watching on that awful, shattering day. (I wasn’t one of them, I came late to the party, and was listening on radio.)

The last twenty minutes or so are very intense, extra-claustrophobic, in the confines of an aircraft cabin. (I may very possibly never fly commercially again. ) The passengers and surviving cabin staff huddle in the back of the aircraft, stealthily make phone calls, work out what has happened, deduce what will probably happen to them, decide to resist, cobble out a desperate plan; the last few minutes are a mad, disjointed frenzy, filmed on a shaky hand-held camera. A few grace moments: a middle-aged woman making a last tearful call to her family on her cell phone cuts it short, and hands the cell phone to the very much younger woman in the seat next to her, saying “Call your people”. An elderly woman on another cell phone calmly gives the location and combination of the home safe with her will in it, a married couple clinging to each other as the aircraft pitches violently— whatever happens at the last, they will be together.
And so it ends, as everyone who was paying attention that awful day would know, in rural green and golden fields— seen from the cockpit, growing horrifyingly more distinct, and a handful of passengers battering down the cockpit door with a catering cart. United 93 ends in a black screen and sudden silence, and then I realized how the tension had been ratcheted up to an almost unbearable degree. My heartbeat was hammering as if I had just done a 5 mile run with the Weevil, and the theater was entirely silent. No, this is not a movie you could be said to enjoy… but it is a movie with something to say… which is that when Americans die, and they are given sufficient warning, a fair percentage of them will choose to go down fighting.

(Which is, I hope, the message that Osama Bin Laden will take, when someone sends him a DVD of United 93, to whatever his current hiding place is. We’ve got your message, Wierdy-Beardy-Boy, and the answer is—no sale.)

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