I'm often drawn to movies about the darker side of life. I bought the documentaries "Waco, Rules of Engagement" and "Capturing the Friedmans" and have watched them multiple times. I thought I could handle seeing almost anything on screen.
Then I saw "United 93" today and realized that I, too, have limits. By the time director Paul Greengrass reached the final act, and we all know how it ended, there were several moments that I just couldn't even look at the screen. It's a very well-made, very disturbing movie.
Bear with me, because in order to review it, I'm going to have to look at it two ways: Objectively as a piece of art and subjectively as how it affected me.
Objectively, "United 93" is a very good movie about a very horrible day in American history. From the outset, Greengrass meticulously lays out how it began like any other day, with people going about their business at bustling Newark airport (which I use more often than any airport in the country except Hartzfield in Atlanta.) In this just barely pre-9/11 world, the hijackers don't stand out more than any other passenger, but of course we know who they are.
The air traffic tower scenes from around the country are also meticulously reconstructed, and you can tell that, even before things quickly went way wrong that day, air traffic controllers have just about the worst job in the entire world. As things get more and more chaotic, just before the first plane hits the World Trade Center, I noticed the sound effect of having different bits of dialogue coming from different speakers around the theater, a great way to raise the tension, in case we needed it.
Aboard flight United 93, things are likewise hyperrealistic. Even as they made their eventual move to take back the cockpit, I never thought of these people as anything but regular airline passengers. Greengrass wisely chose not to speculate on what they would have been talking about before the four hijackers took charge of the plane, but we feel an instant connection with them anyway.
All that said, by the end of this one I just felt very, very uncomfortable. I really thought I was ready to watch a real-time, chillingly realistic flight which I already knew would end in disaster. I was way wrong.
Maybe it's because of my experience on 9/11 itself. When the first plane hit the World Trade Center I was asleep. In my defense, I was a night copy editor at the time, and often didn't get to sleep until around 2 a.m. or so.
That morning I was woken up by the phone ringing. I didn't drag myself out of bed fast enough to answer it, and instead ended up playing back a message from my boss at the time, Bill Weaver, that simply said, "Keith, I need you to turn on your TV set and then get down here as quick as possible." Bill is a very nice, very laid-back guy, but I would have appreciated a word of warning before I saw the smoke coming from the tower.
I got to the newspaper as fast as I could, and of course it was pure chaos. As the other planes hit the WTC, Pentagon and then a field in Pennsylvania in succession, I wasn't able to absorb it all because we were simply pulling the info off the wire as fast as we could to get a four-page emergency edition out on the street. After a couple of hours down time, we were back to put out the regular paper. Through it all, I never really had time to digest the magnitude of what had happened. That didn't come until about 2 a.m. or so the next morning, when I stayed up for another four hours or so and watched that footage over and over again.
Even when I grasped everything that had happened, the plight of those passengers who died on United 93 was always secondary to what happened in NYC. No longer. Thanks to Paul Greengrass, for better or worse, their horrid deaths will be etched on my brain for a very, very long time.
I've read many commentaries on this movie, with many writers urging people to see this so we will never forget what really happened on 9/11. Well, I'm as guilty as anyone of sometimes being complacent. I get comfortable in my daily routine and can from time to time forget just what a crazy world we live in.
That said, I can't tell anyone to go see this movie. I normally enjoy giving out my opinion about flicks, or else I wouldn't have started this blog. With "United 93," however, I can only advise you it is a unflinching look at terror, and will stay with you long after you have left the theater.
If you can handle that, buckle up for a movie experience unlike anything you've ever seen before.
Saturday, April 29, 2006
Posted by Reel Fanatic at 2:15 PM