The response to United 93, Paul Greengrass’ docudrama-style imagining of what might have taken place on that doomed 81-minute flight, has been almost universally one of hushed tones and murmured praise, from both the left and right. The New York Post calls it a “respectful, inspiring” film that’s “in no way exploitative or emotionally manipulative,” while the Village Voice praises its “discretion” and christens Greengrass “the Maya Lin of cine-memorialists.”
This curious critical emphasis on taste, which presumes that the most successful evocation of 9/11 must be the one that exercises the maximum restraint, speaks to the discomfort that we still feel about representations of that dreadful day. To what extent, at what level of gruesome detail, can we allow ourselves to relive it? To what extent do we want to? And even if someone, say, Paul Greengrass, can craft the ideal representation of 9/11 (the most tasteful, the most meticulously researched, the most “true”), what does it avail us to watch the thing?
I hope I don’t sound like a cynic with a heart of lead when I say that United 93, as grueling as it was to sit through, left me feeling curiously unmoved and even slightly resentful. At some point, Greengrass’ exquisite delicacy and tact toward all sides—the surviving families, the baffled air-traffic controllers, even the hijackers themselves—began to smack of political pussyfooting. What is Greengrass actually trying to say about 9/11? That it was a terrible day on which innocent people suffered and died? That the chaos and shock of that morning’s events (skillfully evoked via hand-held camera and real-time pacing) kept anyone, even the air-traffic controllers who watched the hijackings unfold, from understanding what was going on until it was too late? Paul Greengrass has spoken, somewhat portentously, of the events on United 93 as constituting “the DNA of our times.” Fine, but how is the pattern of that DNA expressed in United 93? Why was this film made, and why was it made now?
United 93 is no Schindler’s List, relying on characterization and storytelling to draw viewers into identifying with an otherwise unimaginable horror. If anything, Greengrass’ agenda is an anti-identificatory one. If the Spielberg of Schindler’s List is a wheedling seducer, Greengrass is a chillingly precise archivist. He never cuts away to the families of the Flight 93 passengers, arriving home to listen to their heart-rending voicemail messages. He never visits the inside of the three planes that did crash into buildings that day; we’re aware of their fate only through the words of the air-traffic controllers, some clips of CNN news coverage, and one terrifying stock shot of the plane hitting the second tower. He barely even names the passengers—an hour into the movie, I still hadn’t figured out which one was Todd Beamer—and makes a point of stressing their utter unspecialness, their glazed stares and dull in-flight chatter. The suspense, such as it is, is purely negative—we know in advance what will happen to Flight 93, so the maddeningly slow burn of the film’s first hour (Businessmen heft suitcases! Flight attendants chat about condiments!) serves only to torment us with the anxiety of the inevitable.
As if sensing that American audiences need some break from this Spam-in-a-can claustrophobia, Greengrass builds into his story a cathartic act of anti-terrorist violence that may or may not have taken place on the actual flight. I’ll refrain from describing this act to preserve at least a scrap of traditional movie-style suspense. But it’s worth noting that this possibly imaginary attack is the only moment that allows viewers to act out their 9/11 vengeance fantasies (“Take that, Osama!”).
In every other scene, Greengrass maintains an almost maddening neutrality—a neutrality that shades at times into what might feel to some viewers like sympathy with the devil. In a late scene, Greengrass crosscuts between the hijackers’ final prayers (“Allahu akbar“) and those of the passengers (“Our Father, who art in heaven”). The scene’s implicit message—that terrorists and victims alike turned to their God in those awful final moments—would seem to contradict the film’s ostensible mission: to honor the passengers who rebelled and stormed the cockpit. Greengrass wouldn’t dare say, and may not believe, that the four hijackers demonstrated their own twisted form of courage (a claim that in the with-us-or-against-us days post-9/11 cost Bill Maher his job at ABC), but the intercutting of the prayers suggests exactly that, perhaps contrary to the filmmaker’s intention. It’s one of the moments when his attempt to cover all bases leaves the film feeling not complex, but simply muddled.
In the last five years, “9/11” has become a generic brand name for terrorism, its sky-high recognition quotient useful for ginning up support for any and all manner of belligerent causes. The closest this film ever comes to a political statement—and possibly the only laugh line in the movie—is the snappish question of a beleaguered official: “Do we have any communication with the president at all?” Greenglass may not want to come right out and say it, but the audience’s weary chuckle made it clear: As we slog into the fourth year of the war being waged in 9/11’s wake (and, at least in part, in its name), there’s still no satisfactory answer to that question.