Director Paul Greengrass has taken the story of the fourth plane hijacked on 9/11 and made it into United 93. Departing from Newark, New Jersey and bound for San Francisco, California, this was the plane where a flight delay gave the passengers enough time to hear about the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, realize what was happening and rise up to fight back until the plane crashed short of its intended target in Washington, D.C.. From the moment United 93 was announced, the question that was most often asked was "Is it too soon?" Walking out of United 93 -- and even now -- I couldn't answer whether it was too soon or not. Another question I couldn't answer stuck with me much more intensely: What is a film like United 93 for? What's its purpose? Greengrass himself has suggested that the film is a tribute of remembrance, and perhaps that's enough.
It's certainly hard to not admire the technical skill brought to bear in making United 93; director Greengrass may be best-known for The Bourne Supremacy, but he's also crafted a series of rich, gripping films like Bloody Sunday and Omagh. Those films sprang out of a very British style of filmmaking, one you could call fiction documentary -- a tradition best practiced by Peter Watkins, whose Culloden, The War Game and Punishment Park are well-known in England and almost totally unknown in America. United 93 is in that tradition; the camera itself shakes like it has an adrenaline-jacked pulse, the pans and rotations and zooms of the lens fluid and unceasing, as if a thin sheen of sweat oiled every move. The actors are mostly unknown; many of the real military and aviation officials who witnessed terror and still made decisions on that tragic, chaotic day play themselves. And this is another small mercy: As hard as it is to contemplate Greengrass making a film of this story, that is ameliorated in no small part by the relief that another, lesser filmmaker didn't get to it first. Briefly imagining Michael Bay's United 93 -- with, say, a clenched-jawed Ben Affleck muttering "Let's Roll" and striding up the aisle as an Aerosmith song soars in Dolby -- is a prospect too hideous to contemplate. (Outside of Universal's surprising-but-not-unwelcome decision to hire Greengrass, the only other well-known directors I'd trust to make a 9/11 film are Spielberg, Scorsese, Soderbergh and Lee -- and you could argue that two of them already have approached the subject obliquely in Munich and The 25th Hour.)
At the same time, the attempt to avoid the artificial is, in itself, a form of artifice. United 93 tries to depict the title flight in real time, and Greengrass - who also wrote the script - met with all the families of the deceased passengers. Their involvement gave him material; their consent gave him a place to stand against criticism and nay-sayers. Greengrass hasn't just made a respectful film; he's also made an engaging one, which uses artistic technique behind the camera and acting technique in front of it to create suspense, sorrow and fear. Like Gus Van Sant's Elephant (which, while fiction, is clearly based on the Columbine massacre), United 93 melds the known and the unknown to build to a climax that terrifies us not in spite of the fact we know it but precisely because we do. And Greengrass captures the skidding, ugly slide of the banal and everyday into the nightmarish and apocalyptic, as passengers cower and NORAD commanders are incapable of finding the President. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. And this film puts you at the center.
But is the center the whole? Imagine that you are given a microscopic, intimate view of an hourglass, and you can watch every grain of sand shift and swirl and fall for 90 minutes. This gives you an intimate understanding of the sand in the glass, to be certain; it does not help you understand the beach the sand came from, or tell you about the hand that set the sand in motion as it measured out dwindling moments towards death. You can gain a lot of understanding by looking through a microscope; at the same time, you can't gain the kind of perspective you might get with a more distant point of view. Greengrass has made a film with pathos and pity, but without perspective.
The hijackers, for example, are presented as ciphers, sweaty and tense, muttering unsubtitled prayers before committing cold-blooded murder. If you view 9/11 as a crime -- which is a reduction, but not a falsehood -- then like any crime, it involves means, motive and opportunity. Means and opportunity are covered in United 93; motive is not. It's not that any motive would excuse those who planned and executed 9/11; at the same time, ignoring motive (like overlooking the fact that the 9/11 hijackers were mostly Saudis and Egyptians with a few men from Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, not Iraqis or Afghans) suggests a desire to look for easy answers instead of real ones.
But you cannot put that into 110 minutes, or, rather, you cannot put that into the time span we see in United 93. And as the telling of this one tale unfolds, there is no way you cannot be moved by the sadness and drama of this story. As the captured plane hurtles through the sky, the hijackers in the cockpit pray to Allah that they might reach their target: the passengers at the back pray to Jesus that they might live. To a cynic, the end result looks like a draw; to any human with a heart, it looks like a tragic waste.
So, what is the purpose of United 93? What is it for? Yes, the story told in United 93 is moving; yes, the story told in United 93 is tragic. A plane with 33 passengers, seven crew members and four hijackers took off at 8:47 AM; approximately 90 minutes later, all of them were dead. This film shows you those minutes in detail; it does that superbly. But watching United 93, I kept thinking of the spirit of the closing words in a short piece by Susan Sontag that ran in the "Talk of the Town" section of the first issue of The New Yorker that was published after 9/11. I looked that piece up to re-read its specifics, and Sontag wrote " ... Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. 'Our country is strong,' we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be." Through the next few days, as I puzzled over what exactly the point of United 93 was, I kept hearing Sontag's words over and over until they seemed like prophecy, or a curse. Who doubts that the fates of the passengers and crew of United 93 -- and all the stories of 9/11 -- are tragic? But, just perhaps, that's not all our stories and remembrances of 9/11 should be.