In Defense of 'United 93'

It's uplifting, the film Oliver Stone can't make.

By Steve Burgess 5 May 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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TV and movies are very different. That was particularly evident last weekend as a doomed aircraft took to the skies twice -- in theatres as director John Greengrass' United 93 and on the small screen in A&E's TV movie Flight 93.

The difference was evident at one theatre, anyway. In what might have been a brilliant twist of cinema verite, a nasty drunk at the Granville Cinemas began hurling threats at other patrons as the movie began. Later, during the movie's climactic attack, he began to curse so vigorously that the onscreen chaos was duplicated in Sensurround. "I ain't gonna watch this shit no more," he yelled eventually. "I'm leaving."

If only the passengers could have exercised the same option. The pain and controversy surrounding these films results from the fact that however much dialogue may have been improvised, there is nothing fictional about the ultimate fate of United 93, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field September 11, 2001 after passengers attempted to overpower hijackers who were probably planning to attack the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. It was the only one of four hijacked flights to miss its intended target. Telephone conversations between passengers and people on the ground, plus the cockpit voice recorder tapes, have provided a dramatic framework for filmmakers to draw upon.

The two filmed treatments arrived simultaneously, but show very different flight paths. While critics have weighed in on the advisability of Greengrass' dramatization, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the A&E film, even though it's likely to reach a wider audience. Critics like Salon.com's Stephanie Zacharek have questioned the need for the theatrical release. "[A]s brilliantly crafted -- and as adamantly unexploitive -- as the picture is, it still leaves you wondering why it was made in the first place," Zacharek wrote.

It's an odd stance for a film critic to take. Since when is there no room for a stark, gripping realization of a seminal moment in modern history? Is it exploitation simply because they're selling tickets? Must we surrender every movie screen to the likes of RV and Stick It?

A&E's effort

Whatever else it accomplishes, Greengrass' theatrical release certainly demonstrates the power of artistry, especially when placed alongside standard-issue, competent storytelling like the A&E version. The television movie is actually a pretty solid effort, considering the resources of A&E, a US cable channel that dwells in that middle tier well below the mighty HBO. A&E's Flight 93 attempts a well-rounded account, focusing on emotional telephone conversations between passengers and loved ones, as well as Todd Beamer's now-famous dialogue with an emergency operator that ended when he put down the phone and said "Let's roll."

The TV movie regularly descends into emotional manipulation -- not hard, considering the material. Plenty of distraught relatives for raw dramatic material. But one wonders why violins are necessary to underline scenes already aching with genuine tragedy. That's TV, I guess.

Greengrass' United 93 is a different animal, altogether. Spare, claustrophobic, painfully involving, it restricts itself almost entirely to three settings -- air traffic control rooms, NORAD HQ and the narrow tube of the aircraft cabin. The confusion, misinformation, general incredulity and dawning horror of the day are preserved. The telephone conversations are shown, but not focused on -- after all, they were our source of information but not the central elements of the story. No relatives are shown. No cheap tears are courted.

The subject matter is disturbing, but almost no fault can be found with the dramatic treatment of United 93. The movie is a visceral experience, a terrible but heroic story told in thoroughly unsentimental fashion. Only one thing disturbed me about Greengrass' filmmaking and it left me frankly puzzled about what was intended.

Onboard the plane, there's a particular passenger, a blonde businessman whose accent suggests perhaps Germany or Austria. After the hijackers take over, he is heard suggesting compliance and cooperation. Later, as the melee of the counterattack erupts, he appears to be screaming in protest against the actions of the passengers (I would probably have to see it again to be sure what he was doing -- not only were things chaotic onscreen, but the drunk was kicking up a major fuss directly behind me.)

Interestingly, this European does not appear in the TV film. There were no fictional characters on that plane. Who was this man? On what basis does Greengrass suggest that he opposed the counterattack? He seems disturbingly like the creation of some right-wing hack, a Euro-appeaser foreshadowing the cheese-eating surrender monkeys who would fail to cooperate in the US invasion of Iraq. I hope I'm wrong, and considering the evident integrity of the movie as a whole, it's hard to believe Greengrass, the Irish director behind the movie Bloody Sunday, would do something so thoroughly misguided.

Too depressing?

Some have suggested that United 93 is too depressing to succeed at the box office. No Snakes on a Plane, no avenging Samuel L. Jackson, no soothing realization that it's all just comic book fun for the whole family. It may be true. But I suspect I'm not the only one who found an uplifting aspect to the film. After all, they didn't make movies about the other planes hijacked on September 11. This was the one where passengers, in attempting to save their own lives, saved the lives of unknown hundreds on the ground. How can that fail to inspire?

Other 9/11 movies are coming, chiefly Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, due this summer. Stone being who he is, I will lay odds that his movie will succeed in being in manipulative, ham-fisted and obnoxious. That's Oliver Stone. Meanwhile, what Paul Greengrass has given us is a terrible story, a true story, simply and compellingly told. Can anyone really say there's no place for that in theatres today?

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's at-large culture critic.  [Tyee]

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