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April 28, 2006

United 93


Paul Greengrass - 2006
Universal Pictures 35mm film

About thirty years ago, in one of my film classes at NYU, we saw Alain Resnais' Night and Fog. Shots following the train tracks to Auschwitz alternate between World War II era black and white and contemporary color footage. Added to the footage of the train tracks is documentary footage of concentration camps unified by Jean Cayrol's narration. As soon as the film was over, the teacher immediately dove into a discussion on the formal qualities of Night and Fog until a student brought up the point that the subject matter was too overwhelming to ignore.

For much the same reason, I am not certain if one can intelligently discuss the filmic qualities of United 93 academically. As expected, Paul Greengrass has made a film stylistically similar to Bloody Sunday. Although the documentary styling appears to let the characters speak for themselves, both films indicate a distrust of governmental figureheads. The older film is critical of Queen Elizabeth II for her actions, while George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are conspicous in their absence in United 93.
And while Greengrass does not employ dramatic motifs to underline the presence of good guys or bad guys, I found myself unable to be emotionally uninvolved during the hijacking scenes. While the more intellectual side of me can see that the terrorists were presented as involved in what they sincerely thought was a faith based mission, I was still glad to see them overwhelmed and injured by the passengers (an incident that may have been created for dramatic purposes). All of this raises the questions that whatever one writes about United 93 will in some ways be inescapably a personal response towards the events of September 11, 2001 and the people involved in those events.

One of the more interesting choices made by Greengrass was to have some of the real life players recreate their lives on that day. Ben Sliney, FAA operations manager, appears as himself as seen in the above still. If Sliney is not quite the unsung hero of September 11, he seems to have been the person who tried to connect the dots, coordinate various agencies, and finally took action where he could. NORAD is shown as hampered by commanders not knowing the rules of engagement, and being blocked by protocol that relied on communications with either the President or Vice-President, neither of whom could be reached in a timely manner. Ultimately, United 93 is about the willingness to make decisions for the greater good, under extreme circumstances and immediate need.

I am baffled by those who have stated that it is too soon to make dramatic recreations of the events of September 11. The film 11' 09'' 01 created soon after the actual events as receded from memory. There was a made for cable movie, Flight 93 that was broadcast on the Arts and Entertainment channel last January. The events also provoked discussion concerning the relationship between life and art both serious and humorously. How United 93 will be judged if and when more facts are known is of course yet to be seen. My feeling is that the film's greatest value will be if it is a catalyst in discussion regarding the reality of how one would act and react under unthinkable circumstances.

Posted by peter at April 28, 2006 02:53 PM


Don't wish to be pedantic, but I don't think Greengrass's earlier film expressed much animus towards Queen Elizababeth per se, apart from raising inevitable questions as to whether she ought to be head of state over Northern Ireland. Remember, as a constitutional monarch, she has no executive power, and her only significance is as a symbol; especially in Northern Ireland, where Royalist symbols have iconic status among Protestant unionists.

The 'baddies' of Bloody Sunday were the British Army and the British Government (at that time led by Edward Heath's Conservative Party). Queen Elizabeth is nominally head of both, but her powers are, in reality, extremely limited.

Posted by: Cultural Snow at April 30, 2006 02:29 AM