Tuesday, May 09, 2006

REVIEW: The Truth about 'United 93'

FUNNY HOW A MOVIE COMMEMORATING THE AMERICAN spirit leaves me feeling the need to restrict my own freedom of speech. Meaning: If I blogged the way I really feel about Paul Greengrass' "United 93," I'd fully expect that, the moment I pressed <PUBLISH>, a CIA agent would materialize from my closet, cuff me, beam me up to Virginia, and slam me in a holding cell with Zacarias Moussaoui.

So, what will I say about "United 93"?

Let me check my closet first.

Let me start with the positives: Even though we all knew how the movie
would end, I was on the edge of my seat for virtually the entire ride. Then, there's...


Okay, now on to the negatives. In the press notes for the film, Greengrass lists 'commemorating those who died on flight United 93' as one of his motives for creating this film. A short note about commemoration: If Greengrass expects the old I'm-singing-about-Jesus-so-you-can't-boo-me-off-of-the-Apollo trick is going to fly, he will sadly learn the fate of many a Sandmaned "His Eye is on the Sparrow" singer. Meaning: Greengrass gets zero sympathy points (from me) for United 93's subject matter.

While the horse is down, at the risk of being branded un-American I'm going to beat it a little more. The act of commemoration, or recognition, while commendable, is not enough in itself. For instance, when recognizing the performances of Olympic athletes, gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded - not tin ones. It is not enough that Greengrass created a film in an act of commemoration, what is as important, or even more important, is the quality of that which commemorates. Commemoration means nothing if the medal, the trophy, the statue, the film is made of something which will tarnish or be forgotten. And this is where United 93 is a failure - there, I said it, failure - as a movie.

"United 93" is a tin medal. While Greengrass' shaky camera lens does successfully convey the sense of disorder aboard the flight, is that technique really new territory for docudrama? And while 'United 93' is perhaps accurate in its detail of the cockpit and the air traffic control center; while it is shiny in its portrayal of the heroics of the passengers; it is hollow as a tin can in what I felt as an audience member the moment I walked out of the theatre.

Here is the main problem with the film: Like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, it has no heart. Oodles of emoting, but no heart. Allow me to explain. I liken 'United 93' to the the 1933 version of "King Kong, in which it felt like Ann Darrow screamed for 90 minutes straight running from that gorrilla through the jungle: scream after scream after scream <BREATH> after scream after scream after scream <BREATH> after... Instead of feeling terror, I felt dread. Kill her, already! I screamed at the screen. Granted, that was movie-making of a different era, but I'm a movie watcher of this era. Which brings me back to 'United 93'.

While I realize that the final minutes of the flight must have been horrifying, there had to be a better way to portray this cinematically. How many times to watch one sobbing into his phone? How many times to watch another screaming at the top of her lungs? Any fan of a convincing horror film will tell you the power of suggestion in creating tension. And don't get me wrong, I'm not asking for entertainment, I'm just asking for effectiveness.

Where was the revelation? Which is to say I don't fault the actors. I fault the one holding the camera. Movie-making is not just bout getting the fact right; it is about getting the feeling right. A more effective way to humanize the United 93 tragedy would have been simple: Follow just one passenger's story to the end. Instead, I left the cinema feeling no passenger's story.

Yet I don't consider Greengrass' project a waste. Ten percent of the opening weekend's proceeds went to the Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania, and hopefully, his film will inspire other filmmakers to seek a deeper truth. I say, save your time and donate your money directly to the Flight 93 National Memorial fund.

1 comment:

Collin said...

I really have no interest in seeing this film. I feel I already know enough about what happened on United 93 that I don't need to actors playing it out on a set.

Besides, nothing will be able to ever touch the film "Fearless" with Rosie Perez (nominated for an Oscar and should have won) and Jeff Bridges as survivors of a plane crash. Talk about breathtaking, powerful, real performances (and one of the most harrowing plane crashes I've ever seen put on film). It's elegiac and speaks to the human toll of this kind of event much more strongly than any post Sept. 11 film could.