TCS Daily

Too Soon to Forget

By James Pinkerton - April 28, 2006 12:00 AM

"United 93" is a paradoxical film.

On the one hand, it reminds us of the power of cinema. It's a difficult film to watch, but it's even more difficult not to be affected by it. Yet on the other hand, "93" uses few of the tricks directors use to enhance effect. It doesn't have to -- the thing speaks for itself.

As for emotive and evocative power, "93" reminds us why seeing a movie, in a theater, "spellbound in darkness," is a richer experience than seeing a movie on a little screen. The viewer travels somewhere, sits in darkness, and enjoys a collective experience with like-minded people; such pilgrimages have been a staple of human existence for thousands of years.

Nearly two centuries ago, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge described his goal in writing poetry: "to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment." The willing suspension of disbelief. Coleridge achieved that goal in such works as "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and "93" achieves it, too, in part because the audience, at least not yet, can't click around, pause, rewind, etc. What you see is what director Paul Greengrass, best known for his documentary-like film "Bloody Sunday," has aimed for you to see -- and believe.

But don't take my word for it. Here's Variety reporting on Tuesday night's New York City premiere: "After the film's devastating final scene, the screen abruptly went dark and a cacophony of loud, uncontrollable sobs could be heard coming from the back of the theater, where many of the nearly 100 family members of 9/11 victims were seated. Some were seeing the film for the first time. As more than 1,100 viewers filed out, a funereal silence filled the theater." That's cinematic power.

Yet at the same time, "93" is not tricky or manipulative. It's about as straight a retelling of the events of 9-11 -- as seen inside one of the doomed jetliners and inside various air-traffic control towers -- as one can imagine. Each viewer is left to connect the dots as to what's on the screen, to make his or her own meaning.

The cast is a bunch of no-names, which is not the same thing as "no-talents." They look ordinary, and for the most part, act in ordinary ways -- until the end. Even then, there are no Rambos, just desperate people rising to the occasion. Director Greengrass' most inspired casting choice was to use air traffic controllers to play... themselves, just as they were, on the job, almost five years ago. The most notable of these is Ben Sliney, who in real life was manager of the Federal Aviation Administration's National Operations Center in Herndon, Virginia, on Black Tuesday. Sliney is authoritative and crisp -- of course he is, after 40 years on the job.

Just as crucially, the Arab hijackers -- a Lebanese ringleader and three Saudis -- are "normal," too. We might all agree that these mass-killers did an evil act, but they didn't see themselves that way, and since the film strives for realism, as opposed to didacticism, they are played straight; there's no mustache-twirling, no gold-teeth gleaming, no sadistic blood-lusting. These are serious men on a serious mission, and, yes, they are more than a little scared themselves. Notably, the hijackers come across as deeply religious; most of their dialogue seems to involve Allah and Islam. They are selfless, literally, and courageous in their pursuit of murderous martyrdom.

In other words, as we sit in the darkness of the theater, we have to make sense of the light and dark we see on the screen. It's our job to provide the moral editing, because "93" eschews the usual emotion-cueing devices, such as slow motion, swelling music, and freeze frames. Even "Let's roll!" is just another phrase as the passengers rush the cockpit -- we have to know, or not, that those words later came to evoke the fate of UA 93.

So does Greengrass miss his chance to make a true epic? And more seriously, does he sink into moral relativism? Not at all. He has deliberately made a small film that concentrates all its energy into a narrow vortex of actual events. He is confident that just about everyone will get the message. Indeed, there's a distinct artistry in keeping a tight focus.

Watching the film, I was left with two different sets of questions.

First, the mega-question for audiences of any disaster movie: What would we do in the same situation? James Cameron, director of the greatest disaster movie of them all, "Titanic," once told me, "Everyone who goes to see a disaster movie asks, 'What would I have done if that had been me up there?'" That's not a small question today, now that we know that terror can strike anywhere.

Second, what's the world going to be like when two things are ubiquitous: high technology and high-intensity religion? Not only have conventional explosives proliferated far past the point of no return -- the jury is still out on nuclear weapons -- but just about every machine we have ever made, no matter how peaceful its purpose, can be "dual-used" into something sinister. And we also know that Islam provides the steely determination that empowers jihadists and suicidalists to do just about anything. To put it mildly, the West, with its porous borders and its cities full of soft targets, has not been ready for this onslaught. Will we fortify ourselves? Or will we seek out the "root causes" of such violence? Those are even bigger questions.

But as noted, "United 93" keeps itself small. Which is not to say that it hasn't generated enormous controversy.

And so the last point: Is it "too soon" for this movie? For the answer to that question I will yield to David Beamer, father of Todd, who says, "Is it too soon to remember? It's too soon to forget."

James Pinkerton is TCS Daily's Media Critic and fellow at the New America Foundation.



such a shame...
that the same government that purports to protect us strips us of any means to self-defense when we board a plane. Their promises to protect are hollow and meant only to cover their failures. The so-called protectors cannot be in all places at all times..though they would not want us all to realize that. We regular Americans however, or at least some of us, are always there when bad guys show up, whether at our doorstep or on an airplane. So the question is: Why have we been stripped of our natural right to self-defense just because we've gotten on an airplane?

Good question
In my opinion it is to strip the average American of his ability to defend himself from that government. Ah, the road to tyrany is a short one indeed.

And just how
would you provide passengers with the means to defend themselves on an airplane?

What a change for Hollywood
After seeing terrorists glorified its hard to believe Hollywood was capable of showing them as they are. Byt I doubt Hollywood will nominate this for any awards in light of what the majoprity of Hollywood's ignoranitti consider Oscar worthy. Anything that reminds Americans and the world of the evil that exists and confronts us assists in the day when it will no longer be tolerated.

Good question
Guns aren't the answer, but neither, it appears, is disarming passengers.

Don't give Hollywood the credit
I'm sure some in their power-elite did their best to keep this from being released. And you are right not to hold your breath for an Oscar nomination.

guns and knives
And no, the myth of a bullet hole causing a catestrophic loss of cabin pressure is just that, a myth.

Problem is
If you allow the passengers to be armed, you may be giving free weapons to terrorists, trained for combat where the passengers are not. Passengers all armed? The terrorists will just have more on board.

Besides, Flight 93 showed that the terrorists can't use the 9/11 method ever again.

I'm not sure of that.
But allowing passengers to be armed, not compelling them to be, shouldn't be a problem.

I don't believe anyone suggested passing out guns
Though if they did, it would be 100 armed passengers vs. 4 or 5 armed terrorists.

right, especially with...
frangible bullets. Will kill the bad guy but not penetrate the aircraft's shell.

Censorship? Here in the USA?
In your world there exists an elite that tries to get motion pictures censored? That's not quite cognate with my world. The Hays Office (enforcers of the old Production Code) has been inactive for many years now.

The only group I know of who's up in arms about new movies is Opus Dei-- hardly an elitist outfit by my reckoning, but more just a group of nice Catholic ladies. And not even they want to ban heresiacal movies. They just want a warning label put on them.

"Caution: viewing this product carries the risk of eternal damnation."

Before 9/11
Before 9/11 I flew a couple hundred thousand miles on various airlines with a Swiss Army Knife either in my pocket or my briefcase (usually in my brief case because then it would not set off the metal detector).

While spending so much time in planes, I thought a lot about what I'd do if there was a hijacking. I was in the military at the time, and believe it or not, we had instructions to maintain a low profile in such a situation and not to start a fight.

I made a decision that I would have acted rather than say "I was just following orders."

Where'd those nice ladies put that label on Roy?

You don't think there is any upper management in Hollywood
Or you don't believe they would do just about anything to forward their ideological rant? Sure was a whole lot of dising going outa the left coast when The Passion was getting ready to come out.

nah, no one in Hollywood would ever try to do anything to stop or interrupt the release of a movie. It's just never happened has it? I'll let you look that one up yourself.

Do we really still need to find the 'cause'?
I find James' review riveting and look forward to seeing the film (as hard as I, with others, will find it). I only see one flaw in James's clsoing remarks.

The root cause here is Islam's core teaching. As I have shown repeatedly in various writitngs and on my own blog Mohammed, the Koran and the Traditions and Hadith et al persistently teach openly that murder and violence is a perfectly Allah-given path to subjugating all other peoples, cultures and faiths.

Moderate Muslims (perhaps even most Mulsims) may well deny it by overlooking the innumerable passages that teach these things - something we should be thankful for (and encourage). But Islamists who do so are simply folloiwng th epath of liberal Christians who choose to empty the Bible of real meaning and substance too.

But it doesn't nothing. Islamic 'radicals' not the 'moderates' are the ones living out true Islam as unpalatable as we may find that truth. Until we grasp this key fact and understanding - as hard as President Bush and others find it - we are never really going to 'get it' entirely.

Jews and Christians have often achieved the most extraordinary things when acting upon God's Word. Should we expect it to be any different for those 'driven' by the specific word of Allah - as related through his prophet?

I can see it now
Scene opens: Mel Gibson's executive door (mahogany). Three men enter: Danny DeVito, flanked by George Clooney and a sinister looking Sean Penn.

Mel: Whay can I do for you, gentlemen?

Danny: We come with greetings from the Big Boss.

Mel: Oh, give Sol my best. What's on his mind?

Danny: It's about your... project. This Cross thing, with the thorny crown and all. It's no good.

Mel: We've all been very happy with it down at the set. Why, Solly's got a young protegee looking for a bit part.

George, breaking in: It's not that, Mel. It's the content. It's the whole thing. He wants you to can it.

Mel: Look guys, we can work something out. I'll use fewer nails. Anything. Let's be reasonable.

Sean: If we can't reach some agreement, Sol says maybe you would prefer to sleep with the fishes?

George: Sean, I think that "sleep with the fishes" thing is getting old. I'm sure Mel gets the idea.

They exit.

I agree - key issue is not root causes, but how to utterly defeat them
I don't understand the "root causes" being a key question. This isn't some discussion on inner-city crime. The key question is how to completely and utterly defeat this enemy.

I believe the enemy when they say that they want to destroy the West. I believe them when they say that we must either die, convert, or submit.

"Root causes" wasn't the key issue when we fought against Japan and Germany, the Civil War, or the Revolutionary War.

Certainly we must seek out and help moderate Islamics, but we must either defeat the Islamic terrorists and their sponsoring States or be defeated ourselves.

why do you assume that it is an outside group?

Every major studio turned down Gibson's movie. So he had to make it with his own money.
Every distributor refused to distribute Gibson's movie, so he had to create a distribution network from scratch.

Why would they do this to a movie that turned out to be one of the top money makers of all time?
Could it be they didn't like the message that was in the movie?

And then they spoke out against it when it was released
Short of Bean's mafia scenario, everything that could be done was done by the Hollywood elite to make the movie a failure.

Aw, but what do we know Mark? Bean says there is no censorship in Hollywood.

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