Why I disliked United 93
the other day that United 93
(which is only the third movie I’ve seen in a theater in the last three or four years) is a terrible film, but didn’t say why. The following is an incomplete catalogue of what I found to be wrong with it. (Warning: if you don’t like strong criticism of movies, or if you were moved by United 93
and don’t want to see it relentlessly attacked, don’t read this. However, if you go to the end, you’ll see something less negative.)
- The worse aspect of United 93 is the extremely jerky hand-held camera used throughout the movie, a postmodern cinematic technique that adds nothing of value to the film (especially when the director is a complete incompetent like Paul Greengrass), but substitutes an artificially induced sense of ubiquitous nervousness for such cinematic values as character, drama, and plot development. The subtext of the constantly jerking camera is that life is meaningless, that human beings are meaningless particles bouncing against each other in endless Brownian motion. This undercuts any true sense of the terror and horror of 9/11, as well as of the specific tragedy of the passengers on United 93.
- In conformity with the above, we hardly see a complete conversation in the entire movie. For example, two of the most frequently seen characters on screen, one a military officer, the other an air traffic controller, are shown repeatedly on screen alone, each from the same respective camera angle, never in relation to another character, shouting the same aggressive inanities into their telephone. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an angry drunkard banging a pinball machine over and over.
- Almost all the American characters in the film, such as the air traffic controllers, are boorish, uncouth, clueless, overweight, loud, and aimlessly aggressive—a typical anti-American slant that we would expect from a British left-leaning director, which Greengrass’s comments to Rush Limbaugh about Islam also suggest that he is. (The passengers on United 93 are also very messy looking. Almost the only good-looking passenger is a German.) It could be said that this is because many of the American characters, particularly the air-traffic controllers, were played by their real-life selves; but this ignores the fact that a director shapes his material to look a certain way. (Naturally, Rush Limbaugh, ensconced forever on the caboose of societal evolution, was so excited to be seeing a “conservative” and “patriotic” movie about 9/11 that he didn’t pick up on the anti-American subtext.)
- At the same time, the four hijackers are far better looking and better groomed than the real-life killers they portrayed. Compared to the brutish Americans, the hijackers look like urbane, civilized men.
- The hijacker who is assigned to fly the plane has a sensitive, intellectual (and very Caucasian) face, and, as an indication of Greengrass’s sheer incompetence as a movie maker, is shown repeatedly—I would say 30 times at least in the course of the movie—from exactly the same camera angle with exactly the same worried, anxious expression on his face. This is not just Greengrass’s incompetence on display, but his liberal predispositions. Instead of showing the hijacker as a fanatical Muslim who has wholeheardely handed himself over to Allah for the purpose of mass murder and martyrdom, Greengrass portrays him as a sensitive, tortured guy.
- The key part of the movie, the passengers’ decision to wrest control of the plane from the hijackers and their organizing themselves to do that, is, like everything else in the movie, done in such a fragmented way that any sense of a coherent, human event is destroyed. The passengers hardly emerge as distinct characters. There are brief exceptions to this rule. There is a moment when we see the passenger who I think is Todd Beamer, his eyes intent, looking thoughtfully toward the front of the plane from his seat. We see conscious purpose in his face. There is the sense of a person who is sizing up things and responding to the situation, not just suffering passively from it. But moments of genuine drama like that, in which a character is treated as a real human being possessing dignity and individuality, are extremely rare in this film. The overall presentation, including the passengers’ final attack on the pilot’s cabin, is a jerky confused mess, undercutting the sense of the real heroism and real tragedy that occurred on the real United 93. Already I can hear readers saying, “But that’s the way it was! It really was confused and chaotic! And we don’t know what happened on the plane anyway.” No. The purpose of drama and cinema is to select and shape elements from reality as to make a meaningful whole out of them. Simply saying, “Life is chaotic, so movies ought to be chaotic too,” is an acceptance of nihilism.
The movie left me in a negative, nervous state, as it did the friend I saw it with, who was bothered by the horror of 9/11 rather than by the aesthetics of the movie, as I was. But the day was not lost. We had a satisfying meal at a Wendy’s on Eighth Avenue in the Fifties—fast food is not what is used to be—and then walked through Central Park in the late afternoon and the gathering twilight, stopping here and there and talking of various things. The enveloping, always surprising beauty of the Park, its calmness and quietness in the twilight, washed away all the negativity and tension left over from the movie. I felt again how Central Park is far more than a collection of beautiful lawns and trees and rocks and paths and ever-changing, unexpected vistas. It has a distinct spiritual presence
that takes you over and refreshes your inner being (as Frederick Law Olmstead said was his intention). Central Park is one of the wonders of the world, one of the greatest achievements of mankind, and there for everyone to enjoy.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 16, 2006 12:59 AM | Send