United 93

A brief Slate debate about the controversial new movie.

Slate’sstory ideas come mostly out of the daily flurry of reply-all messages sent around by editors and writers. This week, we had an unusually interesting and contentious e-mail conversation about the United 93 trailer, which has drawn objections from families of 9/11 victims. Rather than commission an article with a single point of view, we decided to try sharing with readers our internal debate on the subject. What follows is a conversation that grew out of the e-mail discussion we had yesterday.

Click here to view the United 93 trailer.

Meghan: Earlier this week, we were debating whether to assign a piece on the controversy over United 93 trailer. But I was listening to people on the radio today who seemed truly upset by having seen the United 93 trailer, and I could understand why. And I began thinking about whether the unease was largely about the movie itself, or, in part, a mechanical problem caused by advertising a movie like this: The movie does need to be advertised, and it shouldn’t not be (if we’re going to accept the premise that it’s OK for such a movie to exist, and I do). But one woman—I can’t recall, but I think she knew someone, maybe her husband, who had died in the WTC—said she was shocked because there was no warning what the trailer was going to be.

Is there a way in which, with events this recent and real, we need another kind of warning from the MPAA? (Something other than the tiny box that says, “The following preview contains violence.”) Should the trailer come with a short, typed notice announcing what it is, so people can look away (and plug their ears if they like)? Or is it really that a plurality of Americans simply aren’t ready for a fictionalization of 9/11? How often, if ever, have there been films like this so hard on the heels of a nationally traumatic event? (Pearl Harbor, for instance.) Paul Greengrass—the director of United 93—did a great job with Bloody Sunday, another film that was nationally sensitive, for the Irish. But obviously it came out decades after the event itself. What do you think?

Dahlia: Interesting problem. On the one hand, you can’t pitch everything in the media to the most fragile possible viewer—that’s why not all TV needs to be appropriate for toddlers. But on the other hand, and as you say, Meghan, 9/11 wasn’t just a recent national trauma, it’s also a trauma for which we have no analogue. There’s no template yet for what it all meant or where to put it. So, while I am not always sympathetic to claims that this trauma is a different sort of trauma, and these survivors and relatives of victims are a different sort of survivor and relative, I do think we need to concede that 9/11 really is different, and to be a bit more careful of sensibilities. That, and that the idea of a shocking movie trailer is awfully new and raw, too. Who has really wrapped their head around the notion that they may go to a theater to see a totally different movie and be subjected to something utterly scarring? Shouldn’t we be extra careful here, where the viewer is not only uniquely sensitive but also uniquely unprepared?

That said, my questions in response to Meghan’s post are mostly technical: Would some short, typed notice really give viewers the time to leave the theater? Would blocking one’s ears suffice? I can think of no mechanism that would really be practical, other than modifying the trailers (censorship?) or somehow warning theatergoers (a note on the door that says the previews will contain graphic images of 9/11?) 

June: My worry is that we’ve given the 9/11 victims’ families too much power.

It’s hard to imagine anything more brutal and painful than losing a loved one in an act of terror, and the rest of us should listen to the views of the bereaved when it comes to deciding how those acts should be remembered, but theirs can’t be the only voices that matter. They don’t get to control how terrorism is represented in movie trailers, architecture, or anything else.

The family trump card has been played in other countries. When Spanish filmmaker Julio Medem made La Pelota Vasca, a documentary about the Basque Country told through a series of interviews, the Association of the Victims of Terror picketed screenings and made Medem’s artistic life hell because they felt the film was soft on ETA. In The Permanent Way, David Hare’s verbatim play about the decline of the British railways, crash survivors describe their split with the bereaved—where survivors have to move on from unspeakable horror and piece their lives together, the bereaved are inflexible and controlling.

There is a lot of upsetting stuff in the world. Why do 9/11 victims—and victims of terror generally—get special treatment?

Michael: Sure, it’s silly to imagine a message such as “Attention Victims of 9/11: What You’re About to See Is Really Shocking” in front of the trailer to United 93. What’s the point? It’s not as though you can cordon off the New York skyline. But I do think 9/11 is a special case. For those who lost someone on that day, the 9/11 footage is not “news” or “history,” it’s the replay of a murder. The trailer shows the devastating shot of the second plane about to hit the second tower—complete with CNN logo. Watching that is much different than seeing a fictional re-creation of a horrific event that happened to you or someone you know.

It’s tempting to write off the complaints about the trailer as victims being victims. It’s just a movie, right? But my guess is that the 9/11 families are more sensitive to a queasiness that a lot us share as we watch the Hollywood image factory recut and recycle one of the most incredible and painful images that we have ever seen. Whether or not al-Qaida planned it that way, 9/11 was a television sensation. While I’m usually hostile to ideas that sound like they could have sprung from the pages of Utne Reader, those images did a lot of psychic damage. They became an extension of the terrorist act. The creators of Flight 93 are playing with raw materials. This is not the stuff that Hollywood dreams are made of.

Meghan: If the trailer didn’t include the shot of the plane hitting the WTC, would that be different, do you think, Michael? Is this a problem only New Yorkers will have? The question, I guess, isn’t whether the trailer is upsetting (it is), or whether its impasto of gooey Hollywood feeling is offensive—at one point the words “The day we faced fear” fade in and out on the screen—but whether we’re willing to censor movies and books made in bad taste about 9/11. I’m not. Yet it seems important to be vigilant about those artifacts—to talk about them, think about them. It strikes me again—as it did then—that part of the horror of 9/11 for those of us watching (wherever we were) was its protracted nature, the fact that it wasn’t just a simple bomb in a crowded square (horrible though that is). It was that the people in the planes knew they were being hijacked, and, in the late moments, likely suspected that they were being flown into a building. Many people in the WTC knew they were trapped, and were forced into doing the most appalling thing: jumping, sometimes after saying goodbye to their families by cell phone. To me this is excruciating to even begin to contemplate.

The movie, of course, is built around this precise drama. It invites us to witness the horrific choice—and it’s no accident that both the movies made so far are about Flight 93, rather than, say, the flight from the WTC. Of all the excruciating decisions made that day, of all the terrible forms of choice those involved had, Flight 93’s is the only one that can seem at all redemptive and therefore palatable, according to the American story-making imagination. And yet, you know, it’s still not palatable; it was an act of horrific terrorism in which innocent lives were lost. So, it’s hard to watch the filmmakers prep us, subtly (even here), for the violin-swelling arc of their story.

At the same time, I confess: The trailer made me want to see United 93.

June: It’s not that I don’t care if 9/11 families and others are offended. But we need to hear their anger and pain and move on. Art is fueled by conflict. The best work finds our tender places and reminds us of past hurts—sometimes our response is cathartic, sometimes it’s just an unpleasant reminder of something we’d rather forget. Either way, we can’t put some experiences off limits.

I had no interest in seeing United 93 until I heard Paul Greengrass was involved. Bloody Sunday was a rousing, complex, honest exploration of a pivotal day in the Northern Ireland Troubles. Before writing the script of United 93, he sat down with the families of all the people who died on the plane and received their approval. Isn’t that more than enough sensitivity?

Michael: I bet Paul Greengrass has noble intentions, and it’s not fair to critique his work until we see the movie, but we can judge how he’s selling the movie. Take another look at that trailer: I don’t see catharsis, I see cash registers. It ticks off all the clichés of a slick thriller: The ominous fade-in and fade-out of set-up text. The flight attendant wanting to “Be home with her babies.” The shot of Todd Beamer juxtaposed with one of the terrorists. The explosion rippling out of the World Trade Center with the de rigueur and annoying Gregorian chant music playing underneath. The slow-mo of the terrorist running up the aisle, a bomb strapped to his chest. The worried faces in the control tower, asking permission to shoot Flight 93 down: “May we engage, Sir!” I see this trailer as an unwelcome and somewhat grotesque reminder of the great Onion headline published after 9/11: “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie.”

Stepping back, though, I guess how you feel about United 93 depends on how you feel about the capacity of a movie to stimulate emotional memory and worthy debate. Is United 93 the next JFK, which tapped the Zapruder film and the reservoir of feeling around Kennedy for provocation and profit? Or, more cynically, is it the next The Passion of the Christ? Is it selling a faux authenticity: the idea that a movie, with its technical prowess, can re-create history, can actually give you the experience of what it was like to be on Flight 93? I have no doubt that people will be glad that Paul Greengrass made this movie and will find uplift as the end credits roll (over pictures of the people who died that day, no doubt). But I feel as though the whole thing exists on a rotten foundation. We don’t know what happened on that airplane, but whatever happened, it’s not entertainment.

Dahlia: Perhaps it’s not an accident that I am typing this as Rudy Giuliani stands in front of a jury in Alexandria, Va., pointing to a 3-1/2 foot scale model, reliving the morning of 9/11 in all its horror. This final phase of Moussaoui’s death penalty trial—this phase that is nominally about law but mostly about outrage—will be a real-life approximation of the Greengrass film, complete with 911 tapes, final e-mails from victims, videotape of the crash sites and teddy bears rescued from the rubble. Are the families who are sitting through that any different than the families unwittingly exposed to the images of the United 93 trailer? Certainly there is a question of control; some families may find catharsis or closure in this re-enactment, or they may suffer through the re-enactment to gain closure through Moussaoui’s execution. But both displays use technology, as Michael notes, to ask people to relive that hellish day. Both displays are as good, or as bad, then, as our need to witness them.

You ask, Meghan, whether this is just a New York problem. I don’t think it is. I think it’s got to do with the long, complicated life cycle of grieving. National wounds of this sort take decades to heal. We weren’t ready for Schindler’s List in 1960, even if we were ready for Night. There are some tragedies that should be absorbed slowly and carefully. Should we ban or limit this trailer? No. Should we reify it as art? I suppose that’s in the eye, and heart, of the beholder.