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Home > Media

TFT Film: United 93

3 June 2006

On Tuesday evening President Bush sat in a White House screening room and watched Paul Greengrass' film, 'United 93'. This is the film of the events aboard the fourth plane hijacked on September 11th. The one that didn't quite reach its designated target - Capitol Hill, or possibly the White House. The President watched the film in the company of some of the relatives of the 40 innocent people killed on the flight. Eep. The film makes devastating viewing at the best of times. Even watching it in a cinema in Leicester Square, with the distraction of Nina Myskow just two seats away, it proved the most harrowing hour and a half we have ever spent in a cinema. So what George Bush must have been going through on Tuesday evening really doesn't bear thinking about. Maybe he didn't. White House press secretary Tony Snow described the evening as 'a very emotional night'. We can well believe it.

With any film about a real life terrorist atrocity from the very recent past, there is an awful lot at stake and so much that can go very badly wrong. It's difficult in fact to imagine more sensitive subject matter. Perhaps a biopic of Ian Huntley would spark some of the same trepidation, the same dread of gross insensitivity or tasteless profiteering. In a worst-case scenario, 'United 93' could have been a pseudo-subtle cross-over of the 'Airport' movies from the 70s meets any of the 'Die Hard' romps, with soap operatics, sappy clichéd dialogue and a sentimental soundtrack of overly-swollen strings; it could have made a mockery of the passengers by painting them as all-American cardboard cut-outs and it could have had 'heroes' and 'villains' written across each of the characters in Hollywood-broad cartoon strokes. It could, in short, have been 'Flight 93'.

'Flight 93' was a Fox-funded American TV movie directed by Peter Markle and first broadcast in January in the States. It falls into all of the above traps with alacrity, making a violent clenched cringe of one of the most terrible stories in human history. The only trap it manages to avoid is that of having the passengers overpower the terrorists at the last minute, land the plane safely and run off into a freedom-scented sunset with Keira Knightley. But still, 'Flight 93' is everything 'United 93' is not. Don't be fooled at your local video store.

Meanwhile, many American viewers have been left wondering why either film needed to be made at all, suggesting that the only motives behind the venture for all concerned were financial or otherwise self-serving. Indeed, all over the Internet people are aghast at the very existence of 'United 93'. In the comments to one review at Salon.com, Jane writes:

'Anyone who volunteers to subject themselves to this film, in my opinion, has not been deeply touched by tragedy ever and is seeking an artifical experience, a vicarious dramatic intensity. I'm not being articulate enough. I am just so dumbstruck by people's willingingness to finance, perform in, and otherwise support this project.'

A touching confession of inarticulacy there, but Jane fails to
realise that through the 'vicarious dramatic intensity' she
describes and derides, a great deal can be achieved.

There is one scene in the film where passengers, now fully aware that their hijackers intend to destroy them along with the plane, telephone loved ones to say their last goodbyes. The same scene also appears in the film 'Flight 93', but in keeping with the tone of that film, it mires itself in mawkishness, the hardly-imaginable horror of the situation drowned in the mood music and shots of the angelic children who'll be left behind. Even the Lord's Prayer makes an appearance. In the Greengrass film, the scene is one of the most powerful. It grounds us as much as it does the passengers. It brings home in the simplest possible terms exactly why we should care about any of this. Martin Amis put it rather well in last week's Sunday Times. He wonders what one might tell a child in that situation:

'...I suppose you would just tell him or her that you loved them, and he or she would tell you that they loved you too. Love is an abstract noun, something nebulous. And yet love turns out to be the only part of us that is solid, as the world turns upside down and the screen goes black. We can't tell if it will survive us. But we can be sure that it's the last thing to go.'

It would be folly to say that the film helps us understand why atrocities such as 9/11 occur, but like all good endeavour, what it does is help us understand, or help us remember, that we're all in this together. And we have a responsibility to one another.

The trajectory of 'United 93' unfolds in real time, with the events in New York witnessed through the eyes of Air Traffic Control. George Bush doesn't feature in the film except as someone important who cannot be reached and who cannot act and who does not help. The film is wholly devoid of sensationalism and refuses to pass judgement on any of the protagonists. But still, George Bush must have been feeling awful queer on Tuesday evening, watching that which was deftly melded into the prologue to his Grand Old War Presidency, alongside the nearest and dearest of arguably the first victims of the War on Terror. We wouldn't be surprised if he felt pretty damn righteous. And he probably ate pretzels throughout.


'United 93' is released across the country today.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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