Thursday, May 4, 2006

united 93

Last night, Steve and I went to see United 93, the film about the fourth plane hijacked in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It was so well-done, and I am so glad I saw it.

Some say it’s too soon for them to see a movie like this, that it’s too raw and recent. But it wasn’t that way for me. True, it was intense and powerful — I left the theater feeling heavy and somber (and never wanting to fly again, especially not without my husband). But I wanted to relive it. I wanted someone really capable and talented (like Paul Greengrass, who I thought did a good job with Bloody Sunday) to paint a vivid picture for me of what it might have been like on that plane, to be in the air traffic control centers. I wanted him to immerse me in the emotions of those moments, to fill in the gaps in my imagination. Those people could have been us. United 93 to San Francisco could have been Northwest 597 to Portland. I don't ever want to forget the powerful horror of that day, the way our lives changed in an instant.

That said, I know not everyone is going to want to see this movie. I cannot possibly imagine what the victim's families have endured over the past (almost) five years, although I know that Paul Greengrass met with them and got their approval before making the film. Many people were taken aback by the trailer. The subject of the film sneaks up on you in the preview; there is no forewarning about what is about to unfold. Was there another way to handle the trailer? Is it the “right” time for this movie?

An interesting, inhouse e-mail conversation on the subject went around the newsroom at, and they’ve posted it for the public to read. It begins:
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.
As food for thought, here are a few quotes I pulled from the conversation:
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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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.

• • •

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 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."

• • •

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.


Christina said...

I also saw "United 93" last night, Emilie. Like you, I was really curious to learn how the movie would fill in those gaps in my imagination. And yes, it's important that we remember that horrific day.

I was tense the entire two hours, and afraid I'd have nightmares. When passengers made those calls home, oh, it broke my heart.

I felt saddened and confused all over again to think people would murder in the name of God.

I was most struck by the way, at times, we viewed the event through the terrorists' eyes, watching them watch their fellow passengers waiting to board the plane. That one man talking on his cell, asking someone to "cc" him an email, and knowing he'd never receive it. That was an eery perspective.

Here's Chris Hewitt's Pioneer Press review. I think he's right that the director's narrow focus was effective.;jsessionid=E145D0A5B9002B9F94A6F6D5EF89CEC2.prodapp14_ae_02?id=592105&reviewId=20650&startDate=Today

Emilie said...

Christina, I felt that way, too. I was confused by my emotions regarding the terrorists. They, especially the main one, at times seemed too human to hate - anxious, scared. When the guy called someone at the airport and said "I love you. I love you," in German, it was hard to imagine him as a hard-hearted killer. I wondered what kinds of people volunteer to do these types of missions. Who were these guys before they became suicide-terrorists? Were they "normal" people once?

As the movie ended, I realized that I had stopped breathing and had to let my breath out.

(P.S. Tell your mom thanks for the treats yesterday!) :)

liz said...

So interesting. I don't think I will be seeing it soon, but that is only because I haven't gotten to a place in my own grief where I am comfortable watching stuff like this.

I think it's SO great that the director got the permission of each & every family. But you know, I can imagine supporting the effort and still refusing to see the movie personally. I can definitely understand how those families might want this movie to have been made so that their loved ones' legacies live on, but there is a big difference between that and wanting to *watch* the movie. If anyone made a movie about my brother's life I'd be very supportive, but there is no way in hell I would watch his car accident on film - absolutely no way. The imagery of it would be seared into my brain. Maybe for these families, it already is; I can't imagine watching the news every night when to them, it isn't news - it's murder. (As someone pointed out.)

Anyway, I'm rambling. I'm glad you felt it was well-done, even if it was a tense experience! I think I'll pass, but I'm interested to see how this all plays out.