Originally published in New York Press, April 26-May 2.
The plane is going down. The engines are buckling and whining. Passengers are screaming. The ground is rushing up.
I'm describing the events of United Flight 93, the fourth plane hijacked on 9/11, the one driven into the ground in Shanksville, Pa., after its passengers fought back against their terrorist captors. I'm also describing "United 93," the blockbuster docudrama based on that incident which enters wide release this Friday.
If you read that opening depiction again, it sounds like an account of another thrilling experience altogether—a theme park ride. Unfortunately, it's this last experience that "United 93" most resembles—but not because of any one misstep made by director Paul Greengrass or his cast.
The unofficial graffiti tag of 9/11 was "We Will Never Forget," yet this film, which is dedicated to the memory of all who died, is ironically designed to make you erase everything but the 100 most emotionally intense minutes of 9/11. Given all this, it seems no surprise that Greengrass' last film, "The Bourne Supremacy," was a blockbuster action sequel about a government-trained killer with amnesia. This new movie is a different kind of amnesiac agent: It's propaganda produced by, and for, the malleable center of the American psyche, a place where political leanings are built from Tinker Toys.
The film's tone, which ranges from somber to harrowing, never strays outside the emotional bandwidth of a memorial service. There's not any single egregious creative misstep, but all these factors combine together to form some wild rollercoaster experience of the psyche.
The film's triumphs are wholly visceral, and so is its PR campaign. At a press screening last week, it reduced a roomful of hardened critics to tears. Some of them went straight to their offices afterward and filed rave reviews, and I can't say I blame them. Writing about the movie so soon after watching it must have been the critics' equivalent of having to fill out an accident report after being pulled from a wreck. You can't really say anything except, "That was intense," and, "I'm glad it's over"—the same things you would say as you're stumbling into the crowd after the most hellish amusement park attraction of all-time. Of course it's intense: It squeezes your heart in its fist, awakens your sense-memories of 9/11 and your dark imaginings of United Flight 93's last moments while sending you home without a scratch.
Anyone who denies its power is lying. But anyone who justifies that power on aesthetic grounds is perpetrating a greater lie.
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