Wednesday, May 17, 2006

United 93

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Along with the strong documentary feel--the hand held camera, the annoying passersby that block the view--there is an eerie absence of editorializing in this movie. The film plays like a security video of a 7-11 murder, with the effect that the viewer doesn’t have the comfort of knowing this is someone else’s point of view. Director Paul Greengrass knows that messages and morals would only dilute the brutal realism of his work. Through the innovative use of detachment, Greengrass has solved the problem of keeping the events of 9-11 perpetually fresh in the American psyche. Grandstanders and warmongers can now continue with their work, their zeal undiminished, their material replenished.

The information in the plane’s flight data recorder has not been made available to the public, so we don’t know why this passenger plane, hijacked by terrorists on 9-11, crashed before it reached its target. The film’s storyline follows the popular theory that the passengers mutinied against their captors and brought the plane down. But in keeping with its policy of objective reporting, the film makes no attempt to create heroes out of the passengers. Even the famous line, “Let’s roll,” which I had imagined as a heroic battle cry just before the passengers stormed the cockpit, was delivered in a huddled hush by one of the mutineers. The line was whispered so softly, I wondered how Greengrass expects us to believe that a telephone was able to accidentally pick it up.

There is also no attempt to make villains out of the terrorists beyond the obvious destructiveness of their act. They are guerrillas on a mission, improvising as the field conditions dictate. Not making villains out of the terrorists has the effect of closing the door to rebuttal. An apologist can’t argue that the terrorists are just doing what we would do under similar circumstances. The movie doesn't allow the debate to go there. “Of course they are like us,” the film seems to declare,” but things have gone beyond negotiation, understanding, or figuring out who is right and who is wrong. What we must do to protect ourselves has nothing to do with who’s the bad guy here.” This frightneningly pragmatic point of view should alarm even our friends. Once the world finds out we have disengaged from the moral debate, once it knows we would fumigate or vaporize other people out of existence while fully recognizing their humanity, it will look upon us as a global Macbeth in need of curtailment.

The movie's suspense begins when the terrorists make a mistake by failing to monitor passengers on telephones. Once everyone learns over the air-phones that the plane is on a suicide mission, the four terrorists lose control of the crowd. The passengers conspire against their captors and even begin to improvise weapons out of heavy luggage and boiling water.

Here, the greatest irony of United 93 comes out. The airplane itself is an improvised weapon. Despite all Greengrass' efforts towards gut-level rawness, the astute viewer will pause for introspection and wonder what desperate thoughts prompted the terrorists to improvise this weapon. Did they believe they were passengers in a world that was being piloted on a suicide mission by Western excess? Was the World Trade Center a metaphorical cockpit being stormed by desperate global passengers?

I would guess that this irony was unintentional, but intention is not the substance of art. Like an embarrassing child, art speaks her own mind, heedless of what her red-faced parents told her not to say. On a less artistic level there is an allegory which probably is intended. Since in this version of the story the passengers of flight 93 crashed the plane before it could destroy the Capitol building, their action may be considered pre-emptive. The invasion of Iraq was said to be pre-emptive, and now the possible invasion of Iran is also being touted as pre-emptive. United 93 suggests that in the long run such an attack would be worth the sacrifice of a few American lives.

Besides unintended irony, this work of art also has unintended lessons. The most important lesson questions why Islamic and Western civilizations have to clash in the first place. For example, the movie opens with the most moving recitation of the Koran I have ever heard. This is because the calming and yet deeply emotional quality of the words were enhanced by a soothing sustenato of strings in the background. Musical instruments are forbidden in Koran recitations, and if someone wanted to make a fuss about it, this fusion of violins and Koran could fuel street demonstrations. There was no protest because the innovation was not intended to offend, but to convey to a Western audience the sense of calm that a Koran recitation can bring. Yet even to a Muslim this fusion of cultures was astonishingly artful.

United 93 deviates from the Hollywood airport-movie genre in that the audience knows the story will end in tragedy. But there are those of us who still believe in a happy ending to the Islam vs. West conflict. To help this ship land safely we will create and support art and literature that intermingles the sublime aspects of these two cultures, rather than catalogue and memorialize the atrocities we have each committed. We happy-ending fans recommend the audience walk out on United 93 after enjoying the first scene with the amazing aria 'sung' in Koranic lilt.

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