dvd mashup: intimate looks at 9/11 in ‘United 93’ and ‘The Hamburg Cell’

If you’re keeping track of what’s going on as the awards season ramps up, then you may be aware that Universal is asking critics and Academy members to consider United 93. For what? Best Picture, probably, and perhaps Best Director for Paul Greengrass. This isn’t a film about the performances, as fine as they are … and with half the cast not even professional actors but real-life air traffic controllers and pilots and flight attendants and military officers, it’s hard to imagine that even those critics groups that do recognize ensembles will recognize this one.
The calculus that goes into awards nonsense doesn’t always have much to do with the actual quality of a film, but whatever happens with United 93’s chances, there is no question that this will go down as one of the most startling films of the year, one that mines great power from sheer ordinariness mutating into utter horror, one that is extraordinary in how starkly unsentimental it is. (That quality of the film stands out in sharp contrast next to World Trade Center’s soppiness.) United 93 has been out on DVD since September, and you’re sure to be hearing more about it over the next few weeks and months. If you haven’t seen it and can bear an intimate and shocking reminder of that awful day five years ago, it is well worth your time and attention. [buy at Amazon]

United 93 opens with the hijackers preparing for their suicide mission the night before the flight: ritual bathing, prayers, that kind of thing. But how did those men get to that moment, commmitting to sacrifice their own lives and murder hundreds or thousands of people in the process? The British film The Hamburg Cell, out on DVD this coming Tuesday, shows us. Antonia Bird has made some daring films, like the cannibal-horror Ravenous and the gay-themed Priest, but this may be her riskiest work to date: She dares to look at the perpetrators of 9/11 from their perspective. She dares to portray them as human beings with complex and varied motivations, not as monsters. Working from a delicate script by Ronan Bennett and Alice Perman, this U.K. television production — made for Britain’s Channel 4 and airing in the U.S. on HBO — focuses mainly on Ziad Jarrah, believed to have been the hijacker pilot of United 93, and perhaps the least likely of the 19 terrorists. A secular Lebanese, he lived with a girlfriend and was apolitical… until, it seems, he was radicalized by encounters with angry anti-American fundamentalists, including Mohamed Atta (Kamel Boutros) — they all would form the small group in Hamburg, Germany, that led the 9/11 attacks. Karim Saleh’s performance as Jarrah is elegant in its simplicity, all tiny, concentrated steps that move him from indifferent to infuriated; it’s deeply unsettling to come so intimately face to face with the ordinariness of a man who could be a middling student and a shy lover while also conceiving and carrying out one of the most horrific and evilly ingenious crimes ever committed. The flip side of United 93, this is a quietly horrifying movie because it forces us to confront the fact that those who do even the most awful things are still human. [buy at Amazon]

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The Hamburg Cell
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated

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