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“United 93”, a movie without a story

January 13, 2010

Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” is remarkable, but it’s less a movie than a reenactment. It has no narrative. There are no characters or scenes, just people and events. All traces of story have been stripped away. That’s not a criticism; it’s the key to the movie’s searching intelligence and almost unbearable emotional intensity. It’s also the sign of considerable courage, both artistic and moral, and of faith in the medium. Sometimes sounds and images mean more when they don’t tell a story.

“United 93”, of course, shows us more or less what happened on 9/11 both on board the flight and in various air traffic control centers around the country. It shows the utterly mundane start to the day, the confusion and disbelief as things got worse and worse, and the horror as reality became clear.  And, in its final moments, it shows the passengers of flight 93 fighting back.

When it was first released “United 93” was much praised for not being a typical Hollywood movie and avoiding the conventions of plot and style many feared it would sink to. After Iraq and the Patriot Act, people were on high-alert for yet more propaganda. Fortunately, there are no grand speeches about patriotism, self-sacrifice, or endurance. There are no love interests to add pathos or offer redemption. The famous “Let’s roll” line is an aside, not a rallying cry.

The filmmakers also employed a number of techniques to give the movie a more authentic feel. Here is a partial list. Most of it is shot with a roving, handheld camera. The music is inconspicuous. Technical jargon is simply used without explanation. The pivotal events on board flight 93 occur in real time. Subtitles appear only intermittently for the hijackers’ Arabic. The actors are all either obscure or amateur. Indeed, pilots play pilots, soldiers soliders, and flights attendants flight attendants. Some of the air traffic controllers even play themselves, including former FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney, who is amazing. Greengrass also used hour-long takes and extensive rehearsals to get the actors to fully inhabit their roles.

But these observations go only part way toward explaining “United 93” ‘s unique effect. All the technical tricks could have been used in a much more conventional movie. And it’s not just that the story of United 93 is told in a subtle, honest, or apolitical way. It’s more that story as such has gone missing. David Denby started to get at this when he called Greengrass’s work “existential filmmaking”: “there is only the next instant, and the one after that, and what are you going to do?” That’s basically accurate–indeed, what could be more appropriate for a day when everyone was confused and scared?–but it can give the false impression that the movie has a psychological narrative it completely lacks. It depicts all manner of emotions with utterly convincing intensity, but it makes no attempt to place these in a larger structure or give them any meaning outside themselves.

So more than just realistic filmmaking, filmmaking without illusion, this is filmmaking without allusion. The camera is never concerned with anything but precisely what it shows. People are constantly talking on the phone trying to piece things together, relay information, or say goodbye.  But we never see the other end of these conversations. As far as I can tell we never even meet the other parties. And we barely know the characters themselves. They have no back-stories. No one is typed as the loving family man, the bull-headed military man, the spunky firecracker, the loser who finally makes something of himself. Those are conventional character types, but it’s not as though there are unconventional character types either.  There simply are no characters. The details about the passengers that we do get–one guy likes golf, another rugby, two old people are going to Yosemite, an old woman needs to take some pills–are fleeting, stolen, and of course completely insignificant. Even the salient details, for example  the fact that passenger Jeremy Glick was a judo champion or that it was Ben Sliney’s first day on the job, are completely left out.

The movie of course lacks a moral as well as a story. There is no agenda behind the images, not a hint of geopolitical context nor even a gesture toward world-historical significance. This, together with the anonymity of the characters, actually annoyed a lot of critics (see, for example The New Republic: “Never is there a moment of repulsive sentimentality or exploitation, but neither is Greengrass able to realize an ultimate purpose…United 93 leaves us pretty much where we were before it appeared” and Andrew Sarris, who absurdly thinks that the hijackers come out looking more realized and more sympathetic than the passengers).  Manohla Dargis nicely sums up both charges:

But that narrow focus, along with the lack of fully realized characters, and the absence of any historical or political context, raises the question of why, notwithstanding the usual (if shaky) commercial imperative, this particular movie was made. To jolt us out of complacency? Remind us of those who died? Unite us, as even the film’s title seems to urge? Entertain us?  To be honest, I haven’t a clue. I didn’t need a studio movie to remind me of the humanity of the thousands who were murdered that day or the thousands who have died in the wars waged in their name.

2006 was of course a different time. There was still a high-stakes war to shape the narrative of 9/11.  (For better or worse, current battles seem largely focused away from the meaning of 9/11 and more on other, broader aspects of Islamist terror). “United 93” doesn’t offer a narrative large or small, but why should it?  Narratives, whether about good and evil or about cowardice and persistence or about ordinary lives tragically interrupted, were hardly in short supply. If 9/11 didn’t change everything, it certainly changed the way people talked and the stories they told.  So if “United 93” needs any justification it might be this: that it preserves for us the clarity and confusion of the pivotal moments before they were hurriedly covered over with other meanings.

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