Many of you chose to avoid United 93 for various reasons. The trailer, some suggested, was manipulative. The lack of concrete information, it was said, means that no one should try to tell an incomplete story. The movie, my friends whined, will undoubtedly exploit the men and women who died that day, and should be shunned because of it. Now, there are indeed legitimate reasons not to see United 93. It is perhaps more difficult to watch than any recent American release – not due to the violence, which is sparse and effective, but due to the intense dread that settles into your stomach as you watch dozens of people prepare for what will most certainly not be an ordinary Tuesday. To those who believe they may not be able to handle reliving the emotions conjured by the early parts of the film, I suggest you stay at home. But to the rest of you, to those of you that have decided to avoid United 93 not out of an inability to watch the events unfold on screen, but because of an opinion that the film should never have been made at all… to you, I say this: watch the film and then try to tell yourself you feel the same way.
Documentaries and television features have already been made on this very subject, some with much less information and less cooperation from the living participants and the families of the deceased. I have been told that a “Hollywood commercial” film should not be made about the fourth plane because the idea that someone is making money off of such unimaginable suffering is deplorable. But this school of thought seems to rely on the fact that these attacks took place on our soil: several films about foreign wars are currently in production, and soldiers have been lionized on the silver screen since the invention of the medium. Another attack on America in America, Pearl Harbor, has been addressed in film, and if Michael Bay wanted to make this movie, I doubt anyone would have let him. If we truly want to be honest with ourselves, the main reason why the idea of United 93, and not the film itself, makes us so uncomfortable is the closeness of it. We can create illogical reasons why it should not exist (if it were a documentary and not a feature film, many people would still make money; and if it were independent instead of studio, it would not be better than it is, no matter how much of an indie snob you are), and we can congratulate ourselves for taking a stand against the often-smug motion picture business, but we’re deluding ourselves if we think a lack of detachment is not what is shaping our opinions. It is not our fault, however, that our thoughts are still tied so tightly to that day. Besides the enormity of the events themselves, the annihilation of the towers, the partial destruction of the Pentagon and the crash in Pennsylvania have served as a bloody string used to tie up every political decision that has been wrapped in the flag. The celebrated “Let’s Roll!” remark – nothing more than blink-and-you-miss-it mumble in the film – has been co-opted by those in power and applied as a self-satisfied call to action for deeds that would have been unjustifiable without the continual cheapening and commercialization of that Tuesday morning. United 93 contains no particular political message, except, perhaps, for an administrator’s frantic call, “Where is the President?!?” And everyone in the audience thinks about that Florida classroom. There is no commercialization at work here, only a straightforward tale of heroism and bravery. Yet many of you cannot digest its existence because the events of that day have been shoved down our throats at times when they certainly shouldn’t have been. I do not blame you for being uncomfortable. So am I. I walked home under a sky full of ash that afternoon, so believe me, I have strong emotions about that day. For our collective discomfort, I blame not you but, well, someone in Washington. But this does not mean you should respond by finding a soapbox and complaining while avoiding United 93 altogether. See the film, and make judgments with your intelligence before you make them with your uneasiness.
I would not be endorsing United 93 if writer-director Paul Greengrass had supplemented the inherent drama with romance, catch-phrases or any other type of assembly-line shenanigans. Greengrass refused to make the film without the support and cooperation of the families of the men and women who died on that flight, and many of the administrators who watched in horror from conference rooms and control towers portray themselves with more conviction and plausibility than any hired actor possibly could have. Their participation brings us to the issue of exploitation.
In order to take advantage of the situation for their own selfish needs, as is the literal definition of exploitation, Greengrass and the rest of the people responsible for United 93 would have to profit far more than the rest of us. Monetarily, they will certainly be paid more highly for their involvement than a moviegoer who watches the film. If the only reason this film was created was financial gain, then it is a shameful affair. But to watch the relatives talk about the experience of creating United 93, to know that, at the risk of guaranteed financial success, no well-known actors appear in the film, and to see the film the film itself is to understand that no matter how much or how little money the movie makes at the box office, the people who will profit the most from United 93 are not the filmmakers, but the families of the deceased and the audience. Those of you who are convinced that all studio films focus entirely on the bottom line and that none are made for the sake of storytelling need to put down the crackpipe of extreme cynicism and see a film the likes of which we are unlikely to see again this year. Oliver Stone’s upcoming World Trade Center, for example, focuses on the survival of two people, and consequently fleshes out its two main characters in a way that United 93 intentionally does not. Most films that end in tragedy give us stock characters, or at least names, but we are as unfamiliar with the people on the plane as we would be if we were actually flying from Newark to San Francisco. Todd Beamer, the origin of the “Let’s Roll!” remark, is the passenger we assume will lead the charge, but since we haven’t the slightest idea who he is, we are left to focus on their collective effort. We spend slightly more time with the four terrorists – perhaps because it is less difficult to understand the motivations of the passengers and crew – but even they are nameless, and they come off not as evil, brainless drones but as (extremely) misguided young men who needed a picture of the Capitol to know what they were supposed to destroy. This means that there is no Bruce Willis-type that we assume will rise to the occasion, and no stone-faced villain who is nonetheless defeated by the hero’s skill. United 93 succeeds in its attempt to depict collective bravery precisely because we cannot separate one passenger from another. After the passengers gradually gather information from loved ones on the ground in what is certainly the film’s most heartbreaking sequence, you feel less like a voyeur, and more like the plane’s 41st passenger, wondering how much of a chance you have to stop the hijackers from destroying another landmark and killing more people. I have never seen a film with a preordained outcome that made me forget the inevitable as effectively as United 93. You know the Titanic is going to sink, but if James Cameron doesn’t fabricate star-crossed lovers, the film has no suspense. Greengrass creates his own occasional detail (it has not been proven that the passengers broached the hijacked cockpit, nor has it been proven that they did not), but the passion that flows throughout the film makes you feel that they might, that they will, and when the film ends without noise, without music, and without ceremony, it takes a moment to immediately walk out of the theater. A documentary can be informative, ambitious and incendiary – just ask Mr. Moore – but in the case of the sad story of Flight 93, the detachment usually involved in documentary filmmaking would not have created such a powerful moviegoing event. Some say that movies were invented as a means of escape, and although that is one perfectly good use for them, I would argue that they are at their most useful when the audience has a strong, genuine, visceral and emotional reaction to the film. This story could not have been executed with more skill, more passion, or more success. If you avoided United 93 out of an abstract disagreement with the film’s existence, then, as much as George is to blame for your discomfort, you’ll only be cheating yourself by staying home.