April 29, 2006

United 93

There are spoilers here. If you have no fear of 'em then proceed...

I just got back from seeing United 93. This was the first time I'd set foot inside a movie theater since Men In Black in 1997. It was a 1:20pm matinee and I was one of only eight people in the theater. Aside from what seemed to be a dad and two sons, each of us showed up alone.

I'd read a few comments here and there by people who said that they weren't going to see the film because they had no need to be reminded of the events that it depicts. They say that the people who need to see it are the people who think it's "too soon" to show it. I guess I can understand that as I've never watched the Nick Berg video for the same reason. But, from the time I first read that this movie was coming out, I've wanted to see it.

I've been having a hard time coming up with words that describe my reaction[s] to it. I did some surfing through the blogosphere and, so far, the description that's closest to how I'd describe the film was written by Joshua Minton who, among many excellent points, notes:

The main character in this movie is information--how it flowed, where it stalled, who had it on time, and who had it too late.

The pace is nearly in real time and feels like a documentary. Many of the earlier scenes move slowly, just as they did as they happened. It even takes a few minutes to show us the co-pilot as he gives the required visual inspection of the plane, from the outside, as it is fueling. I never found it dull, even when it spent some time just showing the passengers as they sat around waiting for word that they could begin boarding, though I might if I see it a second time.

I wondered, going in, just what my emotional reactions would be as I watch the events unfold. I was surprised at how emotionally detached I felt most of the time. Perhaps it's because I saw a matinee. I might have had a very different experience if I'd seen a 9:00pm showing.
The scenes at the FAA, NORAD and the various Air Traffic Control centers were populated with professionals who were too busy trying to gather accurate information and make sense of it. Only when the tragedies were before their eyes -- on CNN at FAA and NORAD, and out the window at the New York ATC center -- did we see any vivid emotion from the characters. And those reactions were mostly expressed in silence.

The FAA suddenly looses track of American Airlines Flight 11 "somewhere over Manhatten". They surmise that it may have dropped below their radar as the highjackers were attempting to land at a local airport, but no one can spot it. They then learn that CNN is reporting that a small aircraft has hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. FAA operations manager Ben Sliney (who, among other major characters, plays himself in the film) asks for CNN to be put on the screen. Seeing the amount of smoke billowing up from the tower he protests "That was no small plane. Look at the size of that hole." A short time later he gets confirmation that it was a large commercial airliner that hit the tower. With cool exasperation he says "Well, that's it, then. That's American 11."
But the idea that the crash might have been deliberate hadn't occured to him. "But how could it have hit the tower? It's clear skies and 50!"

There's a scene where the ATC people in New York -- where the burning North Tower of the World Trade Center can be seen in the (relatively short) distance -- are looking for United Flight 175. They tracked it approaching New York City when they lost the signal, and they assumed that it had dropped below their radar. Looking out the window, one guy sees it. "There it is! Just over the Varisano Bridge!". With the north tower burning, they watch as United 175 slams into the south tower. There is no music then that I recall. They watch in silence, processing what they had just witnessed. That solemn moment of silence is the first time that I had a strong emotional reaction: empathy. And it was, I believe, a reaction to what I read on their faces: a transformation from 'does not compute' to 'now I get it'.

Throughout many of the non-93 scenes my response was frustration at how wrong information -- or no information -- kept getting passed along. Long after the FAA had concluded beyond all doubt that American 11 had struck the North Tower, NORAD was getting confirmation from I-forget-where that American 11 was still airbourne and headed for Washington DC. NORAD couldn't get anyone to give them rules of engagement. Jets that had scrambled to intercept it were not only headed the wrong way, they were unarmed. These were uniformed military professionals becoming more and more furious that they were able and ready to respond, but couldn't get a line to the President or Vice-President. In the meantime, the third plane hit the Pentagon.

Even during most of the scenes on board United Flight 93, shot with a hand-held camera, I never felt like I was among them. I was still watching them with a large measure of detachment. At first.

The brilliance of these scenes is that each passenger's character is not developed by having them tell their life stories to each other. They are simply being ordinary. "I just spoke to my wife who said....". I watch an actor named Christian Clemonson, but I meet a man named Thomas Burnett. I don't know anything about Thomas Burnett's life story, but in a very short time, via Clemenson's portrayal, I know who he is.
(Of course, I don't know who the real Thomas Burnett is, but I know who the man on the plane in this movie is.)

The four actors who portrayed the highjackers are, in a word, incredible. They have very few spoken lines, and when they do speak it's subtitled. These four characters are some of the most clearly defined personalities you'll see in a film, and they do it almost entirely without dialogue. Only one of the highjackers -- the "ringleader" -- seems to be able to speak English, and that's only when he says things like "No, thank you, I'm fine," when asked by a flight attendant if he'd like a cup of water.

But I have one quibble. The "ringleader" was portrayed as very nervous; very skittish about their mission. "It's time isn't right yet" he tells his co-sociopaths when they start to be concerned that he's waiting too long to make their move. You definately get the sense that he has very cold feet about doing what they plan to do. Another highjacker decides that it's time to move. The "ringleader" watches as the other three commence the highjacking and, only when the cockpit is cleared of the pilot and co-pilot (who are killed in the process), does he move and take his seat at the controls. This seemed completely unreal to me.

A lot of the action on board is what might have happened. We don't know many details of what actually happened, but most of it seems perfectly reasonable and "life-like". Let's just call it fake but accurate. But, to my mind, the "ringleader" would've become the ringleader because he'd be the strongest of the four. It was only after he was securely in the driver's seat and saw a message display (from memory, probably not verbatim) -- "Be careful of cockpit intrusion. Two planes have hit the World Trade Center" -- that he seems to find inspiration and a renewed sense of purpose. "Our brothers have been successful," he says to his "co-pilot". From then on he seems still somewhat nervous, but his mind is made up.

From this point on the action takes place almost exclusively aboard United Flight 93 and plays out, essentially, in real time. Once it's established that United 93 has been highjacked, we see no more of ATC, FAA or NORAD. From here on out it's the passengers versus the highjackers.

Having learned through cellphone conversations that two planes have hit the World Trade Center, and that there was an "explosion" at the Pentagon, Burnett takes the lead and begins to organize the others. Burnett, Beamer, Glick and the others realize very quickly that they need to either take back the plane or die trying. The two highjackers that aren't in the cockpit are becoming suspicious of what they're up to, but can't do anything to stop them. They are two guys armed with two knives and a fake bomb against a plane-load of pissed off Americans, at least 10 of whom could kick their asses nine ways to Sunday.

Incidentally, their names are never mentioned. There is no "Hi, I'm Jeremy" moment. You have to go here to find out who played who. That's, unexpectedly, very satisfying because, as Josh wrote, "The main character in this movie is information", but not personal information. Watching anonymous men and women responding to events that demand response is what this is about, not what their names are. Names carry baggage. This is about all of us.

It just occurred to me that there were no children aboard that flight.

One older guy was a pilot, but not a commercial airline pilot. He was the one who was gonna be in the hot seat when the others took back the plane. He gave a fair warning that they were travelling awfully low. They weren't 30,000 feet up, mind you, they could see farm houses. Of the ringleader, "If he does something sudden," he warns, "you wont have time to correct it."

One thing that struck me was that there was no to-do made of the words "Let's roll". It was spoken once by a guy who said, in hushed tones, "What are we waiting for? Let's roll." The director wisely chose not to showcase those words. Thank you, Paul Greengrass.

The most satisfying moment was when the passengers launched their offensive. Truely, knowledge went out the window and, for a time, I think I really thought that they could correct history and take back the plane.

The highjackers had been brutal in their take-over. The highjacker who initiated the operation shouted "Allahu Ahkbar!" and promptly stabbed a guy for no reason other than to show the passengers that they were willing to kill at will if they didn't get their way.

The aisle on an airliner is narrow, so the passengers pretty much had to storm the terrorists single file. Beamer went first -- with the others right at his back-- and rushed the guy with the fake bomb, kneeing him in the chest to take him down. The look on the face of that skidmark on the shorts of humanity was priceless. His bluff was called and he knew it. It seemed to take a while, but the bastard was dead.

The second highjacker pounded on the cockpit door to be let in. No go, pal. You're dead with the rest of us, only you'll just have to die sooner and more brutally than us. Too bad.

After a struggle, his neck was broken. Good.

They rammed the locked cockpit door. Tearing a hole through it's center, they managed to eliminate the "co-pilot" and get their hands on the "ringleader". But the ringleader had made up his mind.
This was when music became noticably present. It wasn't anything melodic. It was pretty much just strains of notes and chords that seemed to hold for a while and then blend into the next one. The struggle was for the controls. This was the end. Do or die. Do and die. Right now it was the same thing. Do.

The ringleader shouted "Allahu Ahkbar!.....Allahu Ahkbar!..." as he turned the plane over, under, upside down, and the last minute never shows a man's face. It's all hands and controls, and then a view through the front window. The Pennsylvania farmland getting closer and closer. Closer. Too close. Leaves of grass. Then silence and a black screen.



The credits begin to roll and I wonder what it is that I just felt. I still don't think that I have a handle on it.

It might have to do with the fact that it was a movie. Knowing that many of the main players saw fit to play themselves gives this film "gravitas", as it were. This feels like a definitive account of what happened. But, strangely, what I felt was, I think, satisfied.
Satisfied that I'm not wrong in asking why I should try to "understand" them. Satisfied in knowing that I'm right when I believe that bystanders aren't targets. Satisfied that I'm right when I believe that theocracy is evil.

God = Good
Devil = Evil

We love to know that God is good and that the devil is evil. But, to what does that knowledge translate when "believers" are equipped with the ability to threaten God-given life in God's own name? The spirit of the pilgrims, escaping from religious persecution, has been instilled in me since kindergarten. Theocrats believe that they are doing God's work, but they are merely tyrants who think that they're Gods.

Freedom to just plain be is what we're all about.

And as an athiest/agnostic, I pray that God continues to bless America.

God bless the crew and passengers of United 93.

Sic semper tyrannus.

Posted by Tuning Spork at April 29, 2006 08:40 PM | TrackBack

By some twist of computer fate whenever I click on a post in your RSS feed in Safari, the posts following are totally random and never in date sequence. Today's Blather Review shuffle put this post under your amazing review of United 93.

Posted by: Stephen Macklin at April 29, 2006 09:04 PM

Great post and great review, thank you.

Posted by: Edith at April 30, 2006 08:46 AM

Steve, cool! :)

Thanks, Edie! :D

Posted by: Tuning Spork at April 30, 2006 07:36 PM

excellent post! I have a theory regarding the ringleader. he might not have been the ringleader because he was the "strongest" but because he was the only one who could fly a plane and consequently the smartest. Probably the best educated, and thus the most likely to have second thoughts. He would have had more to lose by commiting suicide. We know that this crew was a fuck up, since they did in fact delay for a long time. They weren't supposed to get all the way into Pennsylvania.

Posted by: annika at May 1, 2006 02:45 AM

Good point, Annika.

It's also unclear to me if the two hijackers that were with the passengers (while the other two were in the cockpit) understood that this was a suicide mission. The only evidence there might have been was when the pilot read the message about the WTC. He said "Our brothers were successful" and the other guy went to give the other two highjackers the good news. But, we didn't hear what the guy told them -- not even in Arabic. I think the movie leaves it open that those two weren't told everything.

Posted by: Tuning Spork at May 1, 2006 05:40 PM
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