Saturday, January 13, 2007

United 93

I didn't see United 93 when it came out, not because it was 'too soon,' rather because I'd heard it described as a non-political straight ahead thriller. After seeing the film, I would agree that it is thrilling, one of the most tense, exciting films of the year, but in retrospect, it's an essentially pointless film. The film is entirely dependent on our outside cultural knowledge for its impact, if you look at the film as a standalone entity, what makes this different than countless B action movies, where our hero triumphantly defeats some ethnic terrorists to ensure the safety of America?

After watching Schindler's List, I wrote this post, discussing the impossibility of making a good film about a culturally charged real event. What does make a film about the Holocaust fifty years later tell us, other than that something awful happened and we shouldn't let it happen again. That may be a valid message, but it's not a particularly interesting one. Setting a film in the historical past always drains it of urgency. With rare exceptions, like Barry Lyndon, there's no vitality or importance to films set in the past, they've already happened and made their cultural impact. I don't think there's anything shocking in Schindler's List, you go in knowing what to expect, and receive the emotional charge that was expected.

Unlike Schindler's List, United 93 is set a mere five years ago, and as a result, it should have more relevance to today's political scene. The film was so charged that people criticized it for coming 'too soon' after the event. After seeing the film, I have to say this film is about four years too late. In the six months or so after the event, 9/11 was a tragedy, after that it became a political object, endlessly distorted to serve the interests of a President out to create a war without end. Even this week, Bush was using 9/11 to justify the war in Iraq and a potential invasion of Iran. The destruction of the towers was an awful event, but the real tragedy is how Bush used what happened to forward his agenda, and actually wound up killing more Americans than the terrorists did on that day.

For me, that is what 9/11 is now, and to make a film like United 93 that naively addresses the day itself without any comment about what would happen after seems hopelessly dated. This is the sort of film we needed a year after the event, as a way of processing things. I think the film does a wonderful job of capturing the shock of the day, the disbelief of the air traffic controllers who laugh at a hijacking as something quaint. Watching those sequences has heavy dramatic irony, we know what's going to happen and want these characters to figure things out. Of course, we know they don't, and in a stunning sequence, the air traffic controllers at Newark watch the plane hit the tower.

That sequence has a lot of power, but it doesn't really earn the power, it just uses a culturally charged image to produce a reaction. In the world of this film, why should we care about anything that happens to the vast, anonymous cast? Now, I think it wouldn't have worked to give obvious emotional hooks to what's going on, but I think Elephant gives a good model for how to use a cultural tragedy in the service of ideas, rather than just recreating something on screen. In Elephant, we see various viginettes showing characters' everyday lives. These viginettes are interesting on their own terms, and we know just enough about the characters to identify with them. I think Elephant would have been a good film without the school shooting ending, but with the ending, it becomes a great one. Van Sant uses the cultural memory of Columbine, and then deflates that mythology, bringing it down the brutal reality of just a frustrated kid with too many guns.

In some respects, I think that was the goal of this film, to bring 9/11 down to a personal level, but it just doesn't succeed. It makes no sense to cut between five different air traffic control rooms. It's just a bunch of anonymous characters talking about the same stuff. I think it would have been more effective to focus on one guy's journey through that day.

The parts on the plane were more effective, but to me, the film just felt like an episode of 24. It was really exciting to watch the passengers prepare their resistance and I was rooting for them as they rushed the cockpit and things descended into chaos. I loved the filmmaking in those final moments, a rush of chaotic camera moves, blood and violence everywhere, as the plane descends toward the ground in a fantastic closing sequence. But, really, what did this film do that 24 hasn't done? It's that same embrace of the essentially conservative action message, cheering on as Americans take down some foreigners. Harrison Ford might as well have been on there telling the terrorists to "get off my plane."

If the filmmakers' mission was to create a compelling action film, I think they succeeded, though from that point of view, I've got to question the lengthy air traffic controller stuff. If the goal was to make us experience what these people felt on 9/11, I think that was pretty much accomplished. But, if the goal was to make us think about the days' events in a different way, I think they failed.

A mere two weeks after 9/11, 24 began, and as the show has progressed, it's been a barometer of post 9/11 thought, an alternate America constantly under attack from terrorists, where torture has seemingly become the only alternative, and a place where the president and big business are constantly working together to create a feeling of terror among the American people. The show has no consistent message about our post 9/11 world, but the schizophrenic mix of liberal and conservative paranoia is precisely what makes the show so relevant for today's world.

And, two years after 9/11, Ron Moore made the new Battlestar Galactica , a work that essentially takes 9/11 into a sci-fi context, and in that work, he creates an emotionally devestating, riveting piece of fiction that tells us a lot more about the way our society reacted to 9/11 than United 93 did. The miniseries was basically the same story as United 93, but full of more interesting characters and concepts, and a deeper exploration of what the attacks mean to society as a whole. Since then, the show has explored our post 9/11 society from every angle, and while the cinema was hinting at current problems with period pieces like Jarhead and Good Night and Good Luck, this season's opening New Caprica arc was the only important reaction to the War in Iraq that's been produced so far in cinema. Freed of the need to be historically accurate, and non-biased in representing real events, the show can get to the core of the issues that matter to our world today.

I think people need to realize that it's never too soon to address what's going on in our world. The War in Iraq is killing people everyday and cinema needs to address that fact. If we'd had films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket in the early 70s, maybe the Vietnam War wouldn't have gone on so long. Today's Iraq War is a massive catastrophe and it's time for filmmakers to stop being 'impartial' and start interrogating the reasons for this war and the culture it has created in dynamic, exciting ways, not just polemical documentaries. The way to do that might be through the use of genre, as in New Caprica, or maybe it's just in not trying to tell stories about our entire society, as in Syriana, and instead just focus on a few people and demonstrate the way their lives have been changed in this new world. Apocalypse Now doesn't indict the war through an in depth exploration of its causes and global consequences, it does so by immersing us in the mental space of the soldiers and showing that they're not liberators, not peace-bringers, they're just trying to survive in the chaos.

So, I enjoyed United 93 as an action thriller, but as a political or important film, it's grossly lacking. 9/11 isn't about the actual attack anymore, it's about the symbol that it's become for Bush's conservative agenda, that's the story that needs to be told and we can't wait until the time is 'right' for that to happen.


Antimatter said...

I have to say I disagree...

"what makes this different than countless B action movies, where our hero triumphantly defeats some ethnic terrorists"

Ignoring the fact that "defeat the terrorists" is a strange interpretation of how the film ends... How about, it's realistic? Which element of the film is reminiscent of a B movie? It embraces a level of verisimilitude that a film like Air Force One doesn't even remotely approach, or even attempt for that matter. It eschews cliches, it features realistic dialogue, and there are no archetypes or caricatures. Better writers than I have expressed the sentiments that I share, I'll let them explain - here and here - Devin Faraci's piece in particular is well worth a read.

The thing that I disagree with most, though, is your comparison to 24. I enjoy 24 as a piece of entertainment, a thrill ride, but 24 is essentially a live action cartoon. The show consistently embraces intelligence insulting levels of illogic, plot contrivances, and contradictions for the sake of excitement. And there's nothing wrong with that, it is what it is - a slick, exceptionally well made thrill ride. The political elements in it are mere window dressing to try to sell believability. Basically, my point is that 24 is not something that I can take seriously, and I don't feel it has much to say about the real world.

If you actually try and analyze the film politically, 24 seems to endorse the idea that it is appropriate and justified to break the rules. And it attempts to convince the audience that this is right by making the hero virtually infallible. When Jack breaks the rules, well, we know he's doing the right thing, so it's OK. All those people throwing rules and regulations in Jack's way, well, they're just obstacles. But that's only if I read something into the show - I don't, because as I said, I can't take it seriously. Don't get me wrong, I'm actually a fan and have watched every episode thus far - it's terrific entertainment.

With relation to United 93, I fail to see any kind of action message in the film. There's nothing gung ho to cheer, if anything the uprising in the end is both horrific and ultimately tragic. It's about real people reacting to a horrifying reality. I think Greengrass himself stated that the film represents the transition to the post-9/11 world - and he's right, you can see the nature of the world change, encapsulated by the events on board the plane.

Apologies for the length of this comment... please note that I'm not in any way trolling, I merely wished to express my opposing viewpoint :)

Patrick said...

No need to apologize for the comment, I always like to see some debate, and you've certainly got some valid points. I may have been a bit harsh on the film there, I really liked it, I just still question the point of it.

I would agree that it has an extremely high level of verisimilitude, and that's what seperates it from typical action films. That's the reason for all those scene with the air traffic controllers, and for not developing characters in a traditional way, to give you the feeling that you're just observing what's going on in a neutral way.

But, at its core, I think the film follows the same beats as an action film, and I would argue that we are meant to, if not cheer, at least celebrate the characters' actions at the end of the film and be happy that they were successful. The end result is tragic, but we're aware that by crashing the plane now, they're saving potentially thousands of lives. The film is about these ordinary people becoming heroes.

The idea that the film represents the transistion to a post 9/11 material is interesting, and something I didn't think about. I suppose you could argue that it's a move from a world where violence against the US is a joke to one where it's a reality. But even then, it seems to endorse the idea of the 'war on terror,' because the situation in the film is one where violent action is necessary, and the people who dismiss the idea of the planes being hijacked end up looking bad. If the message of the film is we need to be on guard, there is real danger out there, then that seems more appropriate to a couple of years ago, before the day was so warped by Bush's appropriation of the legacy for political purposes.

To that end, you could argue that the film is about returning us to the mindset we had on the day itself, before all the manipulation that ensued. But, I would still contend that the legacy of 9/11 has been so warped by what Bush used it for, looking at the day itself, out of context, has little political value. And that's what prompted me to focus on the film's merits as a thriller. It may not have traditional characters or narrative, but there's that same tension as you wait for the heroes to act and thrill as they take over the plane, racing against an impending deadline. It's a much grittier, realistic action, but it's still that same core appeal.

And, with regards to 24, I would agree that the show is frequently illogical and has wildly conflicting political messages, but I think that perfectly captures the world of post 9/11 America. Jack's embrace of violent persuasive techniques to get information and take down 'bad guys' is a right wing fantasy, one where torture always works. On the other side of things, they engage in the ultimate left wing paranoia, the idea of a vast conspiracy of wealthy people influencing the president and waging wars to garner money and power for themselves. There is no coherent message, it's just about interrogating the fears of the moment, and I think that's a valid approach.

In general, I can definitely see what you're saying about United 93, but I think it's a mistake to ignore the fact that a lot of the appeal, at least for me, comes from the way the film works with traditional thriller motifs to provide an extremely exciting viewing experience. That final sequence on the plane was just fantastically staged, a thorough joy to watch, and that's ultimately what I took away from the film, not any sort of political message.

Antimatter said...

Fair enough, I can see what you mean about traditional action movie beats being in place. I suppose in many ways the context of the film has to be taken into account, and that context is something you have to take in with you beforehand, so it's a fair criticism (although given that it's already a key event in history, I doubt many viewers will go in and watch this without some baggage).

I still wouldn't agree that the film endorses a 'war on terror' stance though. In my view, it symoblized the idea that this sort of thing WILL lead to a response, possibly brutal and chaotic. It may not be politically relevant to the events that have occurred in the intervening years, but I think it captures the fact that it is human (and societal) nature to lash out and strike back. I guess when I saw the film, I didn't see the passengers actions as being heroic; they seemed inevitable, a death throe as it were. People believing they have only one solution will take that route no matter the cost. Perhaps that is a commentary on the mentality that makes people amenable to certain actions that are presented to them as absolutely necessary, people who's worldview has been turned on it's head.

At least we can agree that it is a well made and thrilling film, even if we take away different things from it. And the fact that it can (and has) led to some discussion makes the film more noteworthy than the average thriller.

And btw, I fully agree with what you said about Battlestar Galactica - a terrific show that's relevant to our times.