Too soon too soon too soon. How can I bear to watch this? I don’t even know which 9/11 conspiracy theory to believe yet. Or maybe not too soon. How can I bear not to watch? Like many people still traumatized by the events of that day, I have an obsession with it — a not-unhealthy one, I think. It doesn’t torment me constantly, but if I happen to stumble across a Web site devoted to figuring out what happened — and what went wrong — that day, I can be lost for hours in timelines and conflicting reports and pictures of debris. Like picking at a scab even though your mother warns you it’ll never heal if you do that, I can’t stop worrying at the wound of that day. I was dreading, dreading, this film, because I was afraid it would not just pick the scab clean off but open a vein, maybe an artery. But I don’t think I could have not watched it, either.
And I was right to dread, because this is not a dismissable film. You can’t sit through it and scoff and shake your head and say with a scowl, Well, that’s Hollywood for ya. It’s not sensationalistic and it’s not exploitive and there’s no swell of music as the passengers on United 93 jump heroically from their seats with a mighty cry of “Let’s roll!” or any bullshit like that. It’s not disaster porn. It’s terribly, terribly genuine. It’s simple and elegant and lays it all out in the baldest, most banal way possible. It offers no analysis, no explanation — it just says: This is what happened. If you believe the official account.
Its power is in its banality. How is there anything inherently interesting in people boarding a plane, stowing their carry-ons, getting drinks from the flight attendants? In the pilots talking about what equipment they flew in the night before, in their running their checklists, in the ground crew fueling up the plane (oh: fueling up a bomb…), sealing the cabin door? There are no conversations of note among anyone: passengers look over newspapers, tourist brochures; businessmen open their laptops and start tapping. No one is playing to a camera — there is no focal point of any “action” in the movie sense of how we understand these things. It’s not documentary, because in a documentary there is someone taking into the camera explaining something, someone else pointing out something of interest over there. It’s not narrative, because there is no narrative here except the one we have foreknowledge (pastknowledge?) of, the one we bring with us in our memories. Only the knowledge of what is to come makes this so agonizing. Only the sure certainty that this could well be the last normal day makes all the normality so riveting.
It unfolds in not-quite real time, but with a straight-ahead, no-looking-aside through-path: this and this and this and this, an inexorable, predetermined chain of events that it is impossible to tear yourself away from. And yet part of why it’s riveting, too, is that we have not seen these events from these perspectives: we watched it on TV. In a way, we all experienced these things firsthand, and yet here’s an even firsterhand view: through the eyes of the passengers of United 93, trying to come to grips with the new reality they are living in, and will shortly die in; through the eyes of the air traffic controllers trying to figure out which planes, how many, are in distress, and where they’re heading; through the eyes of the military officers trying to assess what, exactly, they are capable of doing from a technological standpoint and what, exactly, they are allowed to do from a moral and legal standpoint, and in an unconscionable void of leadership and direction at the highest levels of government.
And it’s easy to believe these people, this cast with its mix of real ATCs and NORAD officers and flight attendants playing themselves or close analogues, and the vaguely familiar faces of character actors, TV actors, faces that seem like people we know, people who live next door. (Which in my case, I was stunned to discover, is literally true: one of the New York ATCs is “played” by my parents’ next-door neighbor, a real ATC, a man I grew up around and whose kids I babysat. And it was really freakin’ weird to see him onscreen.) They feel like people we know. They aren’t movie stars playing a part — they’re just ordinary folks. (Some of the names that superdedicated entertainment buffs may recognize include: On the plane, Broadway star Cheyenne Jackson; David Rasche, who’s currently appearing as the president of the United States in The Sentinel; Christian Clemenson; John Rothman; and Peter Hermann; and Gregg Henry, currently appearing as the jackass mayor in Slither, as a military officer. Also, the four actors who play the hijackers — Lewis Alsamari, Omar Berdouni, Jamie Harding, and Khalid Abdalla — must be given major kudos for being willing to take on such unforgiving roles.)
We may have imagined some of what these people went through on that day, particularly what was going on in the minds and hearts of the passengers: haven’t we all now asked ourselves what we would do if we knew we were going to die regardless? But now we see them lost in confusion, taking charge as it becomes clear no one else is gonna do anything. We become those passengers in a new way that perhaps was not possible before, or perhaps in a way that we have forgotten in the five years since.
I don’t pretend to understand why writer/director Paul Greengrass — who similarly re-created history with his brilliant and difficult Bloody Sunday, and also directed the excellent popcorn flick The Bourne Supremacy — chose to tell this story right now, but I think anyone who does manage to endure this devastating movie as an audience member will have to find their own “why.” For me, it’s this: on a day on which our so-called leaders utterly failed to lead, ordinary people stepped up and did what needed to be done. If we did that before, we can do it again, and if United 93 reminds good and decent and honest and angry Americans of that — that we hold the power over ourselves and must reclaim it when our leaders fail us — then much good may come from this extraordinarily upsetting movie.