Remembering Flight 93

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Remembering Flight 93

Post by Corlyss_D » Mon May 08, 2006 6:30 pm

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Remembering Flight 93
May 4th 2006
From The Economist print edition



An unmissable film about September 11th

THE first time audiences see the passengers and crew of United's Flight 93, they are killing time before boarding. Passengers put in pointless calls to their offices. The pilots chat about the weather—a perfect day for flying, as it happens. One flight attendant says she wants to cut back on her hours so that she can spend more time with her babies. The last time these people are seen, they are hurtling towards a field in Pennsylvania. In the intervening 90 minutes the audience sees 40 ordinary people go through a living hell—and history turn on a hinge.

United 93—a regular passenger plane that was flying from Newark to San Francisco—was the odd man out of the four planes that were hijacked on September 11th. It was the only one that failed to hit its intended target (which was probably the Capitol). And it was the only one where the passengers fought back. “United 93”—the first big-screen dramatisation of September 11th—is thus more than a film about a hijacking. It is also a film about the first counter-strike in the war against radical Islam—an improvised revolt that saved the American government from decapitation and demonstrated the heroic resourcefulness of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The film has stirred an angry debate. Isn't Hollywood hijacking the hijacking for its own money-grubbing purposes? Isn't life hard enough without watching people hurtle to their death in a metal tube? And—the most insistent question of all—isn't it too soon for America to relive the horror of September 11th? Trailers for the film were greeted with boos in New York and Los Angeles, and were subsequently pulled. Fully 60% of people tell pollsters that they will not see the film.

All this is understandable. Nobody wants to have their noses rubbed in horror for the sake of it. And for the most part Hollywood is incapable of dealing with even the most heavyweight subjects—terrorism included—without indulging in a mixture of sensationalism and idiocy. But September 11th cannot remain off limits to popular culture. Bruce Springsteen (with “The Rising”) and Neil Young (with “Let's Roll”, a hymn to Todd Beamer, one of the heroes of United 93) have both addressed the subject. A&E, a cable channel, has already made a film about Flight 93. Several films about September 11th are in the works, including one by the more-miss-than-hit Oliver Stone. And “United 93” is about as good as it gets—the most vivid reminder to date of what happened on September 11th.

There is nothing sensational about the film. Its director, Paul Greengrass, made his reputation with documentaries, and it is hard to watch “United 93” without feeling that you are watching a fly-on-the-wall real-life drama rather than a Hollywood fiction. Mr Greengrass researched the film meticulously, conducting more than 100 face-to-face interviews with family members and civilian and military personnel, learning about everything from what they wore to what they said on the phone. He used either unknown actors or real-life pilots and air-traffic controllers to add to the sense of actualité. Ben Sliney, the head of the FAA command centre, who eventually took the decision to close down American airspace, plays himself.

Nor is there anything “too soon” about it. How can it be “too soon” to be reminded of the defining events of the new century—events which led, only this week, to a life sentence for the only terrorist arrested for the attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui (see article)? Many Americans have done their best to forget September 11th—driven partly by a desire to return to a normal life and partly by a desperate hope that nothing like that will ever happen again. The terrorist threat? A recent CBS News poll on April 28-30th found that only 3% of people think that terrorism is the most important issue facing the country. Airport security? A bore and a farce. The war against terrorism? A hopeless mess.

Many Americans have become so enraged about the Bush administration's policies that they are more interested in complaining about the war in Iraq than in grappling with Islamic radicalism. It is a sign of the way America is turning in on itself that Mr Young is now howling “Let's Impeach the President” rather than “Let's Roll”. “United 93” is not too soon but perfectly timed—a striking contribution to a debate that is in danger of becoming stale, and a vital reminder of what the fight is about.

A world out of control

Mr Greengrass presents the four hijackers not as monsters—that would have been easy—but as ordinary people driven to do monstrous things. The film opens with them praying in their hotel room. Later, the lead hijacker looks as if he is racked by doubt. But then they matter-of-factly slit one flight attendant's throat “in the name of God” and slaughter the two pilots. The film is also riveting in its portrayal of a world in chaos. Conspiracy theorists revel in the idea that the fate of United 93 was carefully planned—that the air force shot it down deliberately or that, in the more fevered versions, the Bush-Cheney regime planned the atrocities in the first place. But nothing in the film is careful or controlled. The air-traffic controllers cannot come to terms with what is happening. Mr Sliney cannot get any sense out of the Pentagon. The president is AWOL. Lines of communication are broken. The main source of information is CNN.

All this makes for a harrowing 90 minutes. But for all that, “United 93” also has a message of redemption. Mr Greengrass eschews the jingoism that followed September 11th. He shows that the passengers who took over the flight were frightened and confused, and that their revolt was a wild and disorganised affair. Nevertheless, the film contains a glimmer of hope. The victims of the hijacking banded together and decided that, if they were going to die, the least that they could do was to prevent their hijackers from fulfilling their mission. That message of unity against terror is both salutary and necessary.
http://www.economist.com/world/na/displ ... id=6888728
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Corlyss_D
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Post by Corlyss_D » Mon May 08, 2006 6:46 pm

In the past week I've seen both Flight 93 and United 93. They weren't the same film. The former consisted almost entirely of the documented conversations between the doomed passengers and their dumbstruck loved-ones on the ground. There's not much focus on either the take-over or the passengers banding together to retake the plane, perhaps because the director and writer would have had to have filled in. Some think that's unjustifiable, but I don't remember much outcry against the blockbuster Perfect Storm when Junger and the screenwriter did pretty much the same thing to paint the compelling picture of what might have happened to the Andrea Gale when she was out of contact with the rest of the world and no one knows what really happened to the plucky little vessel.

I could barely watch United 93, not because it was so moving but because the camera technique literally made me sick. The director of photography apparently has never heard of a medium shot, a fixed camera, or a boom camera. Except for rare shots, the entire thing was filmed using tight close-ups of faces shot by a handheld camera struggling to keep the faces in focus and dead center of the frame. The constant panning to imitate a viewer on site moving his eyes from speaker to speaker just about made me leave the theater with nausea. There were many times I had to shut my eyes against the sickeningly unsteady images. Of what I saw, I felt the intensity of the FAA controllers and military analysts most keenly, perhaps because the individuals were playing themselves and the feel of real dialog, the palpable sense of rising desperation to regain control of a hopeless situation, was unsurpassed by the aimless chatter of the passengers before the hijacking or the speculative efforts to coordinate their actions afterward. If it weren't for the camera technique, I would see the movie again.
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Post by Ralph » Mon May 08, 2006 9:28 pm

I find these films top be eminently missable. Too raw, too soon for me. Or perhaps never will I feel comfortable with attempts at recreating what I find to be unimaginable terror.
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Post by miranda » Mon May 08, 2006 10:20 pm

I agree with Ralph. I just don't think I'm going to be able to watch either of these films.

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