The Cinemascope frame has never looked or felt as much like a coffin as it does during United 93, a fragile glass casket of a film in which a good cross-section of humanity (all ages, races, religions, and persuasions) have been buried alive and forced to act out an emotionally depressive, hyperactively stylized passion play with an inevitable end. No one going in to watch this thing is unaware that the plane goes down and so certain questions are predictably begged, though I’d like to first focus on what is, by all appearances, the choice bon mot of the moment: “Is it too soon?”
Answer: no. It isn’t too soon and it never is. The arts don’t stand still in the face of world events, and anyone who tells you otherwise (or deems the question worthy of any sort of extended pontification) is a bloody fool, plain and simple. People have been making “post-9/11” art of tremendously varied quality since at least the time American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. A filmmaker I knew back then rather callously bragged about how he intercut footage of the towers burning and falling with shots of him shrugging the whole thing off like it was no big deal. Standoffish? Yes. Adolescent? I think so. But per the maxim oft attributed to Voltaire, “I will defend to the death his right to say it.” All this to declare that United 93 absolutely, undeniably has the right to exist and that to insist otherwise is tantamount to evolutional regression. And yet, wrapped up in that deceptively one-sided pronouncement is an equally apposite absolute: the right of the viewer to respond to the work in question outside of societally prescribed dictum, in any way they deem fit.
Call that prelude to a kiss of death because that’s what I personally wish to bestow on United 93. In my heart of hearts I truly can’t see anyone but masochists viewing this thing more than once, if at all. (If only Jesus Christ made an appearance, it’d guarantee boffo repeat box office). Writer-director Paul Greengrass’s frenetic handheld camerawork, aspiring in its blue/green-tinged slickness to doc-like immediacy, and the faceless cast of unknowns, all of whom appear to be attending an actors seminar held on a Universal Studios theme park roller coaster, are in service of an ideologically muddled house of cards, which crashes to earth long before the plane does. Greengrass is good at portraying confusion, but he’s incapable of providing an artist’s clarity to an event that demands it. There’s no moral center to United 93; Greengrass and his employers trust that recreation, along with a heavily promoted, voluminously footnoted fidelity to “fact” will carry the day. It’s perfectly probable that FAA national operations manager Ben Sliney—who, in one of United 93’s many officially sanctioned and exploitative twists, plays himself—stood rooted to one spot as he dealt with what must rank as the worst-ever first day on the job. But recreated on film, his stasis makes little sense; he comes off as the worst sort of amateur, a deer caught in the headlights put through manufactured fictional paces that he, perversely enough, lived for real. It’s called blocking a scene, Mr. Greengrass. Do it.
Every action outside of the United 93 cabin feels hopelessly bogus, thrown in to generate an illusory and dishonest sense of tension, though this isn’t to say things are much better when Greengrass finally drops the ground-control folderol and focuses on the airborne drama. A better filmmaker would have restricted the real-time story entirely to the plane and refrained from providing sledgehammer signifiers callously warning of what’s to come. When the flight captain calls the passengers’ attention to the not-yet-struck World Trade Center, or when one of the terrorists hangs a picture of the Capitol building on the cockpit controls, the film shows its contrived and utterly offensive dramatic hand, one reliant on passing off conjecture as proven truth. It’s pornography, really, a kind of somber sub-Bruckheimer sideshow that stokes our anger instead of stroking our libidos, all building to an inexorable and anticlimactic cum shot—a sound-deprived descent into black—that does nothing more than empty us of any kind of constructive emotion. We’re constantly told to “never forget,” but on the evidence of United 93 I have to ask what it is, exactly, we’re being asked to remember beyond a Pavlovian sort of rage that constantly and deceptively folds back on itself?
Would that the film’s sins were purely stylistic, it would be so much easier to dismiss. Yet while the stench of death and dread permeates every frame of United 93, it’s nowhere near as strong as the stink of synergy. Certainly this isn’t the first Hollywood production done in by the competing corporate and personal interests that funded it (consider the unspoken implications—both commercial and propagandistic—of the film’s last-minute title change from Flight 93 to United 93), but it’s the only one I’ve come across where the families of those onboard gave it their full-on approval. Not all the families, of course. All evidence suggests that the terrorists’ relatives were left entirely out of the creative process, an action which goes a way toward revealing the film’s hagiographic bias (how easy it then becomes to turn victims into heroes and adversaries into monsters) and points up the general ridiculousness of involving the families in the first place (too many cooks spoiling an already rancid broth). In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life, the recently dead enter a kind of peaceful purgatory where they’re given a chance to review their life on videotape and pick out one memory to be recreated on film. This recreation is then played on an endless loop and becomes, in effect, the individual soul’s personal heaven. What does it say about the living that the families of the United 93 passengers, acting as proxies to the deceased, have deemed a feature-length recreation of their loved ones’ deaths to be a perfectly acceptable testimonial and time capsule?
There’s something more than vaguely unsettling in the way grief is being bartered here, and it becomes even more of a head-slapping clusterfuck when one reads that 10 percent of the movie’s opening-weekend grosses are going to the United 93 memorial fund. Um, excuse me: TEN PERCENT?!! Of the OPENING-WEEKEND GROSSES?!!! Leaving aside the moral and ethical quandaries of selling a family member’s death to Hollywood bigwigs (which should be paramount above all else), why would anyone choosing this path accept anything less than 100 percent of every bloody penny that this thing makes? In effect, this says to me that Universal and its subsidiaries, with the full complicity of the United 93 families, have deemed every person involved in the tragedy to be less-than-10 percent human beings, revivified corpses, essentially, whose total worth is dictated by the amount of cash mustered in a standard movie-going weekend. Something is truly, soul-sickeningly rotten here and no amount of soberly enlightened testaments, fire-and-brimstone political punditry, or gaseous pronouncements to the contrary can distract from it.