Emotional pain is at its most intense at the epicenter of the time and place of its occurrence. A tsunami in Asia shocks us, but not nearly with the fury felt where it hit. A family pet killed near home packs far more visceral devastation for its owners than news of thousands of dead in an earthquake in Turkey. And as a tragedy recedes into the past we insulate ourselves with protective layers. Eventually, we can even make light of it: as Mark Twain famously observed, ?humor is tragedy plus time.?
There will no doubt come a time when the events of September 11th, 2001 will have gathered the protective layering through which we come to view disasters of the past, even bloodbaths like the Spanish Inquisition that were inspired, like 9/11, by religious zealotry and human cruelty. But that time has not yet arrived.
United 93 is almost unbearable. The sense of impending doom that permeates it from the beginning makes it sometimes hard to look at the screen. As the passengers and crew assemble, it?s not just that we know what?s going to happen to them. If we were watching an account of events unfolding on the morning of August 24th in the year 79 AD, we?d know what was in store for the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but we wouldn?t feel it like this. These people are our contemporaries. They are us.
But we don?t get to know much about anybody in this movie, not really. We see them and overhear bits of their conversation much as if we were fellow passengers, but there are no flashbacks or cutaways to the wife waking up and making coffee back on the farm, or the kids heading off to school. The closest to background we get is at the movie?s opening sequence, which starts with the sound of a religious invocation from the Koran against a black screen, and then shows us young Arab men at prayer, calling upon God to bless their mission and dedicating what they are about to do to Him.
This is probably the closest writer/director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) comes to a political statement. He doesn?t demonize the terrorists. He lets their actions speak for themselves. What Greengrass shows us is a group of sincere, devout men consumed by a religious fanaticism that persuades them that their horrific agenda is endorsed, approved, even inspired by God. Greengrass doesn?t draw any parallel to anyone else who may share in this conviction of divine guidance for acts of violence. Again, there?s no need. It?s there, and viewers can make of it what they will.
The build-up to the hijacking is intercut not with personal stories, but with the activity in FAA headquarters, air traffic control centers, and NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command). It starts off as a normal day. Then an American Airlines plane goes missing from the control monitors. Nobody gets very exercised about it for a while. The sense of urgency doesn?t really kick in until after the first plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. Even then, the understanding of what is actually going on is slow to dawn. The second plane hits. The missing AA flight is located, still in the air. It?s heading toward Washington.
When the first WTC tower is struck, United 93 is still on the ground, delayed by a traffic snafu. But eventually it takes off. When officials on the ground begin to grasp the dim outlines of what?s happening, they radio the pilot to secure his cockpit, but he doesn?t quite believe them and seeks confirmation. By the time he gets it, his throat has been cut, and a terrorist is at the controls with a picture of the U.S. Capitol taped to the steering column.
On the ground, activity has reached fever pitch, but confusion reigns, information is sketchy and conflicting, and authority is uncertain. NORAD has scrambled fighter jets, but they?re few, they?re unarmed, and they?re headed in the wrong direction. Rules of engagement require Presidential authority to shoot down the planes, but the President can?t be located. ?How long can that take?? demands the frustrated officer in charge. Some of the personnel seem too real to be actors, and it turns out some of them are ? they?re officials who were in the middle of the action on that fateful day, here playing themselves in the movie.
Once the realization takes hold aboard United 93 of the terrible truth of the situation ? that this is not a hostage situation, but a suicide mission ? Greengrass?s camera stays aboard the doomed airliner, working in close with a jerky, hand-held urgency as the passengers begin to share information gathered from outside phone calls, and come to the grim conclusion that their only play is to attack the terrorists and storm the cockpit.
There is enormous bravery on display here, on both sides of the divide. On the part of the passengers, it?s fueled by a desperate will to survive. On the part of the terrorists, it?s driven by religious fanaticism, and a willingness to die. Bill Maher was fired by ABC for pointing out, soon after the events of 9/11, that whatever else the terrorists were, they weren?t cowards. That was true, but it was apparently too soon then for that kind of truth. It?s not to soon to make this movie. But for many people it will be way too soon to see it.
© Text 2006 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be
© Pictures 2006 Universal Pictures International