Monday, May 01, 2006

United 93: Review

What would you do?

In that place in your mind, that you usually don't discuss with people at parties, what choice would you make? This is certainly not about those mundane everyday choices like what you want for dinner, what fabric softener you should buy, or whether or not you want fries with that. It isn't even about what you'd do in some minor, hypothetical, moral quandary like buying goods that a probably stolen from a street vendor or getting involved in what is most likely an internet money scam. This is about a heroic choice. And this is where the closely guarded secrets of your mind come in, where your imagination takes the reigns. It's not like the childish heroism we adored when we were young where Superman flies in and lifts the fallen crane and saves the lady trapped beneath it. These are the scenarios that run through your mind that you don't tell anyone about... what you would do if, when walking past a dark alley, you happen to glance down it and see someone being mugged... what you would do if you see a car wreck and people are injured... what you would do if you see smoke coming out of an apartment building. Do you keep walking, keep driving, convince yourself that it's someone else's job, someone else's responsibility? Or do you do something about it? Run down that alley and tackle the mugger... stop your car and try to pull the passengers out of the wreckage... run into the building to help people potentially in danger from the fire.

What do you do when you are faced with these extreme circumstances? How far would you go to do the right thing? Are you willing to give your life for justice, to have an honorable death? Can you imagine making that choice, knowing that whatever you chose you and most likely everyone around you will die? Flight 93's passengers could have sat and succumbed to the inevitable. They knew their flight was going to be used as a bomb since three other planes had already been hijacked for that purpose. They knew they were going to die. What would you do? Scheme with your fellow passengers? Try to take out a couple terrorists? Try to retake control of the plane? Would you be willing kill one of your captors? Would you be willing to sacrifice your life to save other lives from unknown disaster?

The excruciating part of the film (and I'm writing these first few paragraphs having not even seen it yet) is imagining yourself in that same situation. Knowing you are going to die, but taking the chance that you can stop whatever horrific plans the hijackers have in mind. Sacrificing yourself to save strangers from an unknown disaster. But you're able to call home one last time... What do you say to your wife or husband, mother and father, who are hundreds, even thousands of miles away, maybe even asleep still. What do you say in your last conversation? What kind of message do you leave for them to find? Goodbye... I love you... don't be sad... I want you to go on with your life... be happy... those words just don't seem to be enough; they don't express enough of the physical pain you feel in your heart because you know you'll never see that person again. And you can only imagine the pain that you are going to cause the people you would call.

I can't see this movie, can't even think about it, without all these scenarios running through my head. What would I have done? Even thinking of the movie makes me tear up as I imagine myself in their situation, imagine myself having to make that final call home, saying that I'll never be coming back. But as Sandy Felt, wife of Edward P. Felt who died on United 93, said in one of the advertisements for the film, "I dare to believe that we have that in all of us." I can only hope that I would have that kind of courage.

Some of the controversy surrounding the movie actually has a little merit, but that it's too soon for this movie for some collective American psyche certainly isn't on of the valid excuses. These images are seared in our memories. It's replayed frequently on TV, and you can find videos of just about anything from that day all over the internet. "Too soon" isn't the valid reason when discussing America as a whole. On an individual basis, it's a much different story. The fetching Mrs. Wookie for example will not go see this movie. She knows she will not be able to make it through the movie; she'll be too emotional, uncontrollably emotional, to appreciate the movie and it's purpose. And I'm sure there are many others out there who feel the same way, but as a collective group Americans are more than capable of seeing the movie for what it is: a dramatic reenactment of events on flight 93.

The just criticism I'm referring to is from people questioning the authenticity of the reenactment of what happened on the flight. No one survived of course, so how do we really know what how events played out? United 93's director tries to explain how he approached the film.

[Paul] Greengrass refused to make United 93 without the support of the families of the passengers and crew. They could not have found a better champion.

There's not an ounce of Hollywood bull in this movie's 111 minutes. To achieve authenticity, Greengrass used little-known actors and recruited aviation and military personnel to play themselves, most notably Ben Sliney, who marked September 11th as his first day on the job as chief of air traffic control at the Federal Aviation Administration's command center in Virginia.

Full support from the families as well as their recollection of the phone calls they received from their loved one's on the flight and having people who were actually involved on September 11th play themselves in the movie. Talking to everyone that was involved with that flight in any way whatsoever to make it as real as possible. We can never know exactly what happened on that flight, but Greengrass being the acclaimed documentarian that he is, gets us as close to the reality of that flight as possible.

And it's in that frame of mind that I saw the movie.

I went to a 5pm showing Friday night. When I bought my ticket the girl at the counter made a point to mention that there would be no previews. Interesting... I don't suppose many other movies want to be advertised right before a film with this much potential power. Perhaps thsacrileget of it as sacralige, advertising for something trying to piggyback their own profits on the back of September 11th. Regardless, as I walked in, the theatre was about 25% full... not bad for the earliest evening showing on a Friday night. Not many people were expecting the movie to do particularly well, but after seeing the movie, I sure hope they're wrong.

Aside from the poignancy of the story itself as I discussed above, the way it was filmed definitely deserves accolades. It was very much a documentary, a reenactment of the events on September 11th. Greengrass did an excellent job keeping politics out of the film. It wasn't pro-Bush or anti-Bush; it was as the saying goes, just the facts. The filmmakers went out of their way to keep this from being your typical Hollywood blockbuster. No big stars. No catchy phrases. Todd Beamer's now famous "Let's roll" was tossed in only as a minor aside, as opposed to the war cry it may have been on the flight.

Down to the very last detail, the film was just like real life. In another context, much oreinterpretedld be reinterpretted as a day in the life of a cross-country flight. What the pilots, flight attendants, air traffpassengerslers, and passnegers do on an everyday basis. Ordinary people doing ordinary things. People just doing their jobs. Doing things that most Americans do every day and don't think twice about. And I suppose that's the point. These were ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances and they chose a heroic course of action that cost them their lives but ultimately may have saved hundreds, even thousands more.

We'll see how the box office results turn out, but I think much of America will take some time this weekend and spend it remembering what happened that day because this film is a tribute to the people who lost their lives on that flight. It's in their memory that the film was made; their story needed to be told, needed to be shouted for all to hear. It's the story of ordinary Americans living and sacrificing themselves for the American dream.

God bless them. We will not forget...