Hijacking the Hijacking

The problem with the United 93 films.

Universal’s United 93 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in awe of what the passengers on United’s hijacked Flight 93 managed to do on 9/11. Everyone knows the basic outline, although the details are necessarily conjectural: With the help of cell-phone contact from friends and relatives on the ground, the passengers figured out the hijackers had no “demands” to negotiate but rather were on a suicide mission similar to the ones that had just crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Somehow, it appears, they took action to thwart that goal, sacrificing themselves to save hundreds, even thousands, of lives in the target city (Washington, D.C.)—action that forced the plane to crash into an empty field in Pennsylvania, leaving no survivors but a near-mythic legacy.

A&E’s Flight 93 

Nothing can take away from that collective act of heroism, but something makes me wonder: Why is this the third film made about Flight 93? I’ve watched them all: There was last year’s Discovery Channel docudrama The Flight That Fought Back. Then there was this year’s A&E cable re-enactment, Flight 93, directed by one of George W. Bush’s college classmates (coincidence?). And now the major new Hollywood feature United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass. 

When the controversy over the trailer for the new film erupted recently, the question was, “Is it too soon?” I wonder if the question should be, “Are there too many?”

Could it be that the three films are a symptom of our addiction to fables of redemptive uplift that shield us from the true dimensions of the tragedy? Redemptive uplift: It’s the official religion of the media, anyway. There must be a silver lining; it’s always darkest before the dawn; the human spirit will triumph over evil; there must be a pony.

That’s always been the subtextual spiritual narrative of media catastrophe coverage: terrible human tragedy, but something good always can be found in it to affirm faith and hope and make us feel better. Plucky, ordinary human beings find a way to rise above the disaster. Man must prevail. The human spirit is resilient, unconquerable. Did I mention there must be a pony?

9/11 is no different. Flight 93 has become 9/11’s pony. The conjectural response to the hijacking has become (even more than the courage of the rescuers in the rubble) the redemptive fable we cling to, the fragment we shore against our ruin. Or so it is as envisioned in The Flight That Fought Back and Flight 93 and now United 93. A film in which, we are told by its production notes, we see “the courage that was born from … the crucible” of 9/11. A story of “something much larger than the event itself,” Greengrass tells us, a story in which “we … find wisdom.” One almost hears the subtext: This is “the feel-good film about 9/11.”

To question this is not meant to take anything away from the heroism of the passengers on Flight 93. (Although to imply that they were the only ones who displayed courage in the face of the events of that day is to slight the cops and firefighters who rushed into the Twin Towers, many of whom never returned alive.)

Still, the director makes a case that, even more than the “first responders,” the Flight 93 passengers were the first to recognize and confront the barbarism of al-Qaida, “the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world,” the first to discover the “shape [of] something larger than the event itself—the DNA of our times,” Greengrass—who seems to want to control the response of the first responders to his film—tells us.

But is the fable of Flight 93 the recompense that it’s been built up to be? Does what happened on Flight 93 represent a triumph of the human spirit, a microcosmic model and portent of the ultimate victory of enlightenment civilization over theocratic savagery, as the prerelease publicity about the new film insists? Or is the story of United Flight 93 a different kind of portent, not “the DNA of our times,” but rather the RIP?

I guess it depends on your definition, your threshold of uplift. Yes, it appears from the cockpit recordings recently released that something noble—a passenger uprising that disrupted the hijackers’ plans—happened on that flight. But is it possible to separate it out from the other events of the day? In three out of four cases savage mass murderers prevailed. A “war on terror” has ensued; a war in Iraq followed. In neither case is it clear that the outcome is going to be favorable. The story of 9/11 as a whole increasingly seems a portent that Flight 93 was an aberration, and that those intent on suicidal martyrdom may well prevail over those who value human life over holy books. This possibility is something no one likes to dwell on, and in that sense the “triumphant” fable of Flight 93, genuinely heroic as it is, represents a comforting diversion. There must be a pony.

This is not a message anyone wants to hear. I recall when working on a documentary on the theodicy of 9/11 for PBS’ Frontline, Helen Whitney’s Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, I had to threaten to take my name off the piece if they changed the title from our Faith and Doubt to just plain Faith at Ground Zero. No one wants to hear any doubt that “God is in charge,” as the orthodox theodicy has it. But what if no one is in charge?

And yet the demand is for redemptiveness. You can see the message of redemption embedded in the very title of the new film with its emphasis on “united.”

The fact that Flight 93 was already taken as a title and Universal had to go with United 93 should not diminish the intentionality of the “united” metaphor. The passengers on the hijacked plane, the one heading for a target in the capital, united heroically. If only we would stay “united” in the struggle, perhaps we could reverse the tide. As if.

The fact that this latest 93 film is surprisingly sophisticated and skillfully done can’t cover up something different: not the darkness before the dawn but the prospect of no dawn at all.

The visual media are not the only ones eager to hijack the hijacking for their redemptive ideology. Both pro- and anti-war camps have seized upon Flight 93 in one way or another. For the former it’s the justification and the model for any and all aggressive responses to 9/11. The invasion of Iraq as the rush to the Flight 93 cockpit. For the latter it’s the myth that’s been misused by the former to justify the Iraq war as a response to 9/11 (according to an AP report in 2004, a Navy Seabee Iraq support base in Kuwait was called “Camp 93” and an Amnesty International spokesperson attributed Abu Ghraib-type mistreatment of prisoners to anger incited by inappropriate linkage between 9/11 and Saddamists).

Popular culture reflects this division: Neil Young manages to incorporate both sides of it. His unapologetic celebration of Flight 93, “Let’s Roll,” and his new “Let’s Impeach the President” songs are not necessarily contradictory. As I understand his position, he’s not renouncing the spirit of “Let’s Roll,” he just feels it’s been misused by the Bush presidency; the new song then represents a form of de-linkage of Flight 93 “let’s roll” redemptiveness and the uses to which it’s been put.

And of course, Flight 93 has been hijacked by conspiracy theories as well, which range from the highly developed “it didn’t crash, it was shot down” scenario, to “the flight landed safely” or was a “drone” of some kind (like the other planes, needless to say). Unconvincing to me, but I feel one can often learn something from an exegesis of the imagery of conspiracy theories, at the very least. And what seems central to both the Flight 93 conspiracy theories and the new Flight 93 movie is the imagery of control and loss of control.

In the conspiracy-theory vision, someone at least is in control. The inept air-defense command actually got it together to scramble a jet and bring down a plane that was set to commit mass murder. Or, in the more sinister versions, the One Big Conspiracy of the Illuminati, and Skull and Bones, the Elders of Zion, and the Bush Administration exercised its Total Control of History in deciding the fate of Flight 93. Sinister, but in some way comforting: At least someone is in control.

But what makes United 93 different from—and less comforting than—the other film versions of Flight 93 is that it’s all about this dialectic of control and lack of control, not just inside the plane, but in the world outside. The other Flight 93 films take place almost entirely inside the plane in a conjectural realm where we’re not sure what really happened. But almost half of United 93 takes place in control rooms, the FAA’s Herndon, Va., control room, the military air-defense command headquarters in upstate New York, and the Boston, New York, and Cleveland air-traffic control centers. It shows how frighteningly little control all those control rooms had over events—how much chaos, bad intelligence, loss of liaison, and breakdowns in communication ruled the day. We’re constantly watching people watching screens, seeing the horror develop in what the screens reveal and conceal from those supposed to be in control.

United 93 is a film that, we’re told, will give us inspiration, courage, and wisdom. In fact, it resembles, rather, a horror film. One horror film in particular, if you ask me: George Romero’s zombie flick Dawn of the Dead (and to some extent its predecessor, Night of the Living Dead). Not the gory flesh-eating zombie scenes, but the brief but even more profoundly disturbing scenes in the control rooms of the television stations, on the screens of the TV sets as the familiar breaks down into panic, information disintegrates in the attempt to report on the growing breakdown of civilization overwhelmed by the undead. No one wants to admit it, but no Flight 93 fable of heroism can mask the fact that we now live in a world we are utterly unprepared for, a world out of control.

Control: I thought of this when I read Martin Amis’ curious but riveting “Last Days of Muhammed Atta,” the excerpt from his new novel that appeared in The New Yorker recently. As an Amis fan, I felt I could see what he was trying to do: give us Atta as a bit of an Amisian misfit, alienated from his “mission” unlike the other hijackers; not an existential hero exactly, but an existentially minded villain. Nonetheless, in doing so, he was something familiar to us and in that sense comforting. Making something alien familiar is a kind of control. But the closest we’ve come to getting inside the head of a 9/11 hijacker has come in the recent testimony of Zacarias Moussaoui gloating over the pain he brought to the survivors of the 9/11 victims in an ugly, unapologetic, out-of-control way: “No remorse, no regret.” Pure delight in inflicting suffering and the prospect of more. Nothing very divided and existential about that. A figure out of Dawn of the Dead. One feels that this is closer to the real Mohammed Atta.

I did not come away from watching United 93 feeling optimistic about the triumph of the human spirit and the superior resilience of enlightenment values. Quite the opposite. I came away with a feeling that history has been hijacked by a cult of the undead, or the wannabe dead, suicidal mass murderers driven by theocratic savagery. That, if you want a metaphoric fable, we’re all on Flight 93, we’re all doomed to crash and burn; whatever we do, the best we can hope for is that the existential rewards of local acts of courage will help us hold on a little longer before the end of enlightenment civilization and the dawn of the dead.

I know: I’m dark. If you can find a pony in there, let me know.