Film Response: United 93

My heart was still beating hard 10 minutes after leaving Slovansky Dum, the big cinema complex near Namesti Republiky in Praha. My Slovak friend who saw United 93 with me had to pull me back from stepping in front of a tram, my mind still occupied with what I’d just seen. [The last time I’d been so physically affected by a movie was after watching the Dardenne brothers’ Le Fils, which left me trembling. Forget what Stephanie Zacharek says, it’s a powerful movie.]

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United 93 affected Laco, my 19-year old Slovak friend, as much as it did me. In broken Czechlish he thanked me for taking him to see it, that despite the fact he’d seen the September 11 tragedy on television, he had never really understood what happened. “Me Slovak, yeah? No America. Ale,” and he still patted his chest over his heart, “I am here.” He said it was a good movie, he liked it, but a bad movie because it had messed with his head. “No film, dok-u-mint,” he commented, accurately enough.

Paul Greengrass’ movie is filmed verite-style – completely hand-held camera work like a documentary – but builds tension – mostly through some deft editing – like an action thriller. The suspense built, for me, from the first few seconds of the opening credits. I suppose because I knew what was coming and because of the way Greengrass casually presents the normal lives of the doomed passengers and crew, as well as the hapless individuals who had to deal with the crisis despite the fact that September 11 started like any other normal day, it’s the utter ordinariness of the filmed life during the first minutes that fueled my anger at the terrorists. By the time the doomed passengers rushed the cockpit and pummeled those would-be warriors of god, I was screaming for blood in my own mind. One expects soldiers and policemen and other professionals on the front lines of wars and disasters to face death down – and their deaths are difficult enough to bear – but really part of what makes 9/11 so appalling is the deliberate and merciless execution of innocents, people who just want to get off work, go have a beer or spend time with their families. Greengrass shows us two sides of these desires, before and after the passengers come to terms with their fate. I was actually nervous about seeing this movie with anyone. Just the trailer itself had me holding back sobs – similar to when I wandered the streets of Manhattan that day and felt my heart convulse every time I saw one of those hand-done missing persons posters taped to a utility pole; they were all over New York that day; when the planes hit and I watched the second tower fall I was simply numb but the loss exhibited on those posters made me confront what had happened –  so when everyone on the plane began calling their loved ones to say goodbye, to give combinations to safes and talk about their wills, me, and many people in the Czech audience I saw it with, just lost it. Laco got really restless and knocked over our popcorn. I turned to him and tears were streaming.

[It gives me hope that a 19-old Central European boy can still feel sympathy towards Americans then and since. Europeans don’t hate us. They do hate how our government has responded to terrorism since then. They hate the fact that the love and empathy they felt toward us was betrayed by the blunders and undemocratic hubris of what they and I basically see as a corrupt and criminal administration.]

Of course, the other part of what makes the atrocities of 9/11 so appalling is that it was carried out by men who believed in God and who felt that taking out 3000 innocent people and terrorizing the world somehow fulfilled God’s will. Amazing. Greengrass therefore takes the biggest risk in United 93 by depicting doubt in the mind of one of the terrorists, presumably the leader of his cell. Whether that doubt stemmed from an opposing morality to the mindset that would lead him to consider such acts or whether it was just simple human fear, Greengrass doesn’t speculate but he allows his audience to do so. I found it brave, and appropriate, to depict them as human, however, and found their fear and that humanity to even be moving if also pathetic and sad. The dedication at the end of the film is to the memory of all those who lost their lives on September 11. Does this include the dead terrorists? I think it does. The first shots in the film, in fact, are shots of the young terrorists preparing themselves through prayer and purification. The voice-over is one of them in prayer. The shot is of an unsuspecting New York. I’m still not sure what was intended by the precedence the terrorists take in this section of the film other than a documentary insistence on giving them their due, their significance in history. If by the end of the film I wanted to kill them myself, it’s no small feat than in the beginning Greengrass allowed me to consider their humanity and what they’d chosen to do with it.

And that, too, is tragic.

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