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"United 93" Never Gets Off the Ground

BY COLIN ASHER
05.02.2006 | FILM

During war-time you need: enemies, heroes, and justification -- more or less in that order. I was reminded of this triple imperative as I watched "United 93," which supplies these ingredients, more or less in this same order.

"United 93," the first of several major media releases to deal with the events of September 11th, 2001, has been the cause of much debate, most centered over whether we as a nation are ready to be re-traumatized. Thus far the debate has not been over whether to, or why to, but when to mine the day's events for the big screen. I would like to present some different questions about the intent and effect of this movie.

I had my doubts before the movie even started. Biased, I'm certain, by the movie's promotional material which all featured the image of a large plane headed for the World Trade Center. In the foreground of every ad was the Statue of Liberty. Making clear to any that doubted: Our very liberty is under attack.

My doubts were reinforced by the movies opening scenes, a blank screen with voice-over of Koranic verses, followed by a fade into an image of the Koran. The effect was not lost on the theater audience -- as the voice-over began hisses leapt through the audience. They redoubled when the Koran came into view.

And here we have our first imperative -- enemy. Even before the audience meets the hijackers, they meet the real enemy, Islam.

Throughout the movie Islam plays the role of demonic authority. The movie's audience gets to hear about Allah only after throats are cut, pilots are stabbed, or the Trade Towers are hit. Each of these acts is followed by, or preceded by, cries of "Allahu Akbar," "God I have submitted myself to you," or "In the name of Allah."

The movie's creators went to great lengths to recreate the events of the day with the greatest accuracy possible. They hired non-actors (officers at the Northeast Air Defense Sector, air traffic controllers, etc.) to play themselves and consulted with the families of the deceased. So it is important to note that in the few details that were left solely to the whims of the film's writers and director, creating the characters of the hijackers, the movie held true to long established Orientalist themes and propagandistic simplicities. How could the movie's creators have possibly known that the hijackers prayed with bloody palms facing skyward, or that Allah was credited when a flight attendant had her throat slit? And why is it that in every instance open to interpretation this movie plays like a post-Beirut action flick?

The portrayal of the passengers is also telling. Excepting the hijackers, there is not a dour face on the entire flight -- astonishing to this writer, a native New Yorker, because the early bird from Newark is not normally associated with bright eyes and pleasant smiles. To a person, the passengers are portrayed as well-balanced, emotionally stable, loving, energetic, dare I say, heroic people. Maybe this can't be helped (the movie was vetted by relatives of United 93 victims), but our need to deify the casualties of the day leads us into our next two imperatives -- the need for heroes and justification.

After suffering a loss like the one the U.S. suffered 9/11/01 there is a need to create a bit of hope. There is a need for some larger-than-life characters to be both proud and in awe of -- normal people we can relate to and whose demise is deserving of vengeance.

I opine that this vengeance fulfills our last war time imperative -- justification. The events of September 11th were the first domino in the series that lead to the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq, and now the potential for military aggression toward Iran. With the U.S.'s actions in the Middle East increasingly under fire internationally, and support for the war flagging domestically, there is a need for us all to be reminded what it's all about. And a need, for propaganda's sake, to re-cast, or rather reiterate our casting, as the aggrieved party.

Though we are the largest and most aggressive country on the planet, we don't like to think of ourselves that way. Like an abusive husband who needs to believe, "she made me hit her," we like to hear that we were prodded into shock-and-awe bombings and puppet governments. We like to be reminded that the civilian casualties, U.S. military deaths, and destroyed infrastructures are the regrettable side-effects of a righteous response to an unforgivable grievance.

There was a study done by psychologist Roxanne Cohen Silver, that studied varying levels of distress associated with the events of September 11th. Its conclusion was that "degree of exposure to -- not degree of loss -- predicts level of distress." The single greatest success of "United 93" is in manufacturing the most vivid exposure possible to the day's events.

Throughout the movie, the camera is hand-held, a huge number of shots are close ups, and we hear snippets of conversations that are true to life: Tearful goodbyes, dying wishes, and the combination to a safe where a last-will can be found. From an artistic point of view this approach is beyond reproach; by the end of the movie it is as if you were there. It should be asked though... do we need this level of exposure? Does it serve a cathartic purpose? Or a political one?

I didn't expect more -- but I hoped for it. Our national need for deified protagonists and demonic aggressors has been well cared for by Hollywood for a long time now; we thrive on that sort of binary-logic in which the U.S. is cast as beset-upon bulwark of civilization -- so I didn't expect any more. But I left the theater wondering: If we insist in evoking the dead for justification, don't we owe them more than bit parts in a propaganda film?

About the Author
Colin Asher is a San Francisco-based writer, currently working with Makis Antzoulatos on a book about the relationship between the radical left and organized labor .
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