Monday, May 1

United 93

I approached the movie with heavy trepidation, hoping I wouldn't cry, scared to watch the events of 9/11 unfold again, worried that it would be too much for me.

There was no need to worry.

The movie itself, was interestingly enough, entertaining and well-crafted. The build-up was perfectly calculated: the blend of the normalcy of people at work in the airports, in the air traffic control towers, at the Federal Aviation Administration and the Northeast Air Defense Sector, slowly gave way to confusion and then built up to a chaotic crescendo that ends on a note of silence, heavy with all that came before it. Paul Greengrass, the director, keeps the focus evenly distributed amongst the different settings and characters, so that in watching United 93 we become participants, sharing the gripping events unfolding in real time with the individuals we're watching.

Except that they're not just characters and settings. These are real locations and real people, and the confusion, fear, and chaos are all part of the history this film is documenting. It is difficult to watch the passengers waiting for their flight and the flight attendants preparing the airplane. You want to shout at them to leave; you want to strike the terrorists down yourself before they reach the plane; you want to pull back the one passenger who almost, almost missed his flight, but caught it just in time. I felt like walking out at that point. But staying to see the entire film is worth it. Because while we all lived through 9/11, few of us were able to share so closely in this experience--many might question why we would want to share. But we already share a collective loss of innocence, security and idealism, and watching the actions and reactions depicted in United 93 provides a starting point for moving beyond it.

United 93 shows the moment of paralysis that took the entire country, and then shows all of these individuals moving beyond it, taking the best actions they could, the only actions they could, and unknowingly becoming hereos simply--though really, with excruciating difficulty--by going on. There is something cathartic in watching these passengers take a hold of their fear and control of their fate, deciding to take action knowing full well what may await them. In watching Ben Sliney, the operations manager for the FAA, react as best as he could with what information he had, and making momentous and unprecedented decisions. In watching the military at NEADS try again and again to figure out what response could possibly be made, and then try to get confirmation for the authority to make it. These people were forced to make choices in the worst of circumstances without the help of protocol or guidance, but the choices were made, and affected all of us. I was surprised that, besides the sadness I was expecting, the emotion I experienced was anger--there were so many things I never considered that day that the film forced me to notice. Other filmgoers said they just relived the emotions of that day, and were frustrated as much now as they were then at their helplessness. But reliving those crucial minutes, five years from the event, really calls into question our reactions and the changes in our country borne of 9/11.

If the film serves to give rise to questions about our country's response to such a tragic disaster, provides a window into details we never considered, or just serves as a vehicle for mourning the victims and events, without the immediate needs of that day diluting the grief, then United 93 with its simple retelling and lack of embellishment has probably given us more than we were ready for on that day. But the movie makes no such demand on the viewers. There is no message, no singling out of anyone or anything. Whatever chord, if any, that the movie strikes will vary from person to person. It's not too much; it's however much you can handle.

If nothing else, the moment of silence at the end, when the screen goes black and the only sounds in the theaters are the soft crying of some filmgoers, serves as a monument for these passengers, all the victims, and everything else lost on 9/11. It seems to me the time is always right for that.