United 93: Apolitical Propaganda?
Children With Angels
Like pretty well everyone else who saw it, I was extremely moved by United 93.
In fact, 'moved' comes nowhere near close enough to describing what I felt during and immediately after this film. In its last minutes I was literally shaking in my seat with the convulsions of tears flowing from me; as I walked out of the cinema I felt completely drained, my stomach a knot of nerves, my eyes red from crying, and I stayed in this state for some hours. It was, without a doubt, the most physical reaction I have ever had to a film.
On a number of levels - particularly the level of determinedly visceral filmmaking - I think United 93 is almost perfect. My reaction to it alone testifies sufficiently to its brilliance when it comes to eliciting powerful emotion. As so many critics have pointed out, Greengrass has used none of the 'cheap' stereotypically Hollywood clichés of the disaster movie that so many feared he could, and has created something infinitely more stirring because of it. Indeed, I think relief at all the things the film did not do is a large part of the reason for the unprecedented level of critical acclaim lavished upon it - and rightly so, in a sense.
I certainly don't intend to argue that it is anything less than admirable of Greengrass to avoid the nauseating pitfalls this film could have so easily succumbed to. And yet, we live in such media-savvy times: is it really conceivable that this most painful of stories might have been told with a heroic John Williams score, fake emotional character-backgrounds and a crassly simplified celebratory patriotism? Would people really swallow such a version? I suppose the answer is - possibly. Though we are, I would suggest, now well past the point when, say, WWII-style propaganda tactics would be largely unquestioningly accepted, there are doubtless those who would still gladly rally round a flag-waving 'War on Terror' Rambo (1985) equivalent. So in that sense, the collective relief and gratitude at United 93's treatment is at least justifiable.
On the other hand, that a work of art is "respectful" (a word used again and again about this film) should hardly be the be-all and end-all of our critical assessment of it. Equally, that I was almost unspeakably affected by it emotionally should not be the only thing that matters either - not with a subject like this.
This piece is thus intended to interrogate United 93 more deeply than I felt a mere review/Alternate Take would allow me. Quite apart from anything else, I knew after I had seen it that I could not possibly give this film a mark out of ten: my feelings towards it are far too complex for that. Rather I think that this important - momentous, really - film requires broader discussion, encompassing a number of different points of view, and a number of different contexts.
A good place to start seems to be United 93's much-praised realistic approach to its subject matter.
It is Greengrass' determination to create as realist as possible a portrayal of these specific events of September 11th 2001 that brought about the no-frills, no-bullshit, no-'Hollywood' feel of the film. From the mundane little realities we glimpse of the passengers' and flight crew's lives, to the minutely researched accuracies of the plane's set, to the shaky handheld camera aesthetic, everything about United 93 proclaims itself to be realistic, truthful - to be cinema verité .
This is undoubtedly how the film gains much of its emotive power: it is very difficult not be affected by an entirely realistic recreation of one of the most extreme situations we can imagine. In the same way as Saving Private Ryan's (1998) famed first twenty minutes ripped our collective guts out with its brutally naturalistic vision of a war zone, so does United 93 shake us with its steely-gazed depiction of a mid-air suicide hijacking - and, I would personally say, does so with ten times the raw power of Spielberg's sequence.
And yet there is something innately troubling about the 'realism' of United 93: namely, that we do not know for certain that anything we see occurring on that plane ever actually took place. Certainly, we have the telephone calls (which have never been made public) and the inconclusive cockpit 'voice box recorder' (the 100% reliable flight data recording having never seen the light of day) which suggest some kind of takeover. But - even if we take these sources of evidence completely at face value - they give us nothing like a full enough picture of what happened on board that flight to extrapolate the events Greengrass shows us.
By shooting the film the way he has, the director has given it a look and style that is the pop culture shorthand for "this is the truth". From Cassavetes to Loach, to Dogme95, to The Blair Witch Project (1999), to actual documentaries and current 'Reality TV' shows, a handheld camera shaking around, accompanied often by histrionic violent shouting, tells us that we are supposed to take what is onscreen in front of us at face value.
This is the point at which an aesthetic choice unconsciously becomes a troubling ideological statement. If the film were shot like Pearl Harbour (1998), in steady dramatic framings, with clearly intoned dialogue, stereotypical character introductions and a sweeping orchestral score, the results might have been laughable (or sickening), but they would - ironically - in a sense be less deceptive. The film language would be admitting that it was printing the legend. As it is, United 93's realistic style effectively tells us that we are to believe everything that it is showing us.
Let's leave aside all the - not entirely dismissible - 9/11 'conspiracy theories' specifically about the flight (for example: that the aeroplane debris found several miles from the crash site suggests mid-air complications, or that an entirely unscathed red bandana, apparently recovered from the scene, suggests planted evidence): when we are dealing with such a volatile and politically-charged moment in history as this, I cannot help but feel that no part of its presentation in a mass cultural object such as this should be based on speculation alone.
(For the record: despite my earlier comments, I would feel almost the same were this film treated like a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster. The very act of a movie being made about a 'true' event makes the subject seem all the more concrete a historical event. There is a sense in which becoming sanctioned by the worldwide mythmaking machine that is Hollywood gives something the universal stamp of some sort of fact, no matter how exaggerated we might assume the specifics to have been. For example - on almost the exact opposite side of the ideological divide to what I'm discussing here - JFK (1991) provided the public domain with a touchstone that potentially gave anyone the justification to say that there was at least something fishy about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. "If they made a film about it, it must be true…")
I believe, however, that complete factual accuracy should be considered especially necessary when everything else about the film screams "real", as does United 93.
In the details, Greengrass has avoided the obvious: most satisfyingly, the Bush-approved phrase "let’s roll", for instance, is not treated as the triumphant battle-cry it easily could have been, but rather is intoned breathlessly, nervously, as part of a longer conspiratorial whisper. As a whole, however, United 93's approach in fact endorses the generally accepted myth more so than any other possibly could. Its 'realism' has, in the eyes of popular culture, made America's patriotic speculation into 'reality'.
Time played a very large part in discussion surrounding the lead-up to the film's release. Everywhere, people were discussing whether or not it was "too soon" for a dramatic film about 9/11. Time - specifically the amount of time elapsed between separate events - was actually being used as the central point of a moral and artistic argument. I would argue that United 93, in turn, then intelligently used the act of passing time as an effective ally to help negate such criticisms.
One key thing about United 93 that many people have noted is how 'present-tense' it is. Though it may not unfold quite in real-time, it comes close enough to it to feel as if it does. There are no flash-backs or jump-forwards: nothing we see takes place outside three or four hours of that morning.
One of the reasons that the present-ness is so noticeable is that we are presented with so much time towards the beginning of the film in which very little happens: passengers try barely-audible small talk, flight attendants board the plane in the slow, casual, businesslike manner they always do, and so on. Like a Warhol film, or - to take a more recent example - any one of Gus Van Sant’s recent 'death trilogy' (Gerry , Elephant  and Last Days  - the second of which I will return to later), these extended instances of dead time make us painfully aware of the seconds ticking by, making us notice the very practise of time passing. Unlike these stylistic examples, however, the effect of sensing passing time here does not self-consciously highlight the act of viewing the film itself, but rather makes us feel the reality of time going by on that particular day.
This is an instructive coup: September 11th, 2001 has, through endless media playing and replaying of its few most dramatic moments, endless discussions and endless referencing, stopped being simply a day, but has become a decontextualised moment out of time, an abstract concept, a figurative tool used to many different ends. By bringing back the sense of time to that Tuesday morning, Greengrass reminds us that this was indeed - as the cliché goes - a day like any other.
This forms an important part of the film's two main projects: its fiercely focussed humanist approach and its aforementioned realism. The latter of these requires no further comment: the phrase 'real-time' confirms what we already know about this filmic technique. Having events unfolding largely in the precise time-frame in which they would actually occur in real life lends an undeniable quality of believability to a film, or a play or a television programme. It is something only these art forms, with their dimension of imposed time, can exploit and they have all historically at some point done so to further a naturalistic style.
By the film's humanism what I mean is the extremely tight focus it forms exclusively on its characters (for they are characters, no matter how faithfully based on real people) and, more importantly, on their experiences. That we see events unfold in broadly the same time they actually took to occur actually makes United 93 subjective in a way that would in fact be impossible through all the deepening of character and motive that a more traditional storytelling approach could muster. Were the film to take a looser approach to time, and show us scenes - for example - of the passengers home-lives the morning before they flew, it might superficially act to enhance our cinematic understanding of them, but little else. Equally, if we were to be privy to the thoughts and feelings of these people in the manner of a more stereotypically cause-and-effect screenplay we would lose much of the terrifyingly downhill momentum that the film possesses.
As it is, we are simply shown the characters' situations precisely, minute-by-minute, as they happen, causing us to intensely feel the hijacking rather than observe it. Little time is given, for example, to the decision to attempt an overthrow: there is no time-out scene of exposition as the passengers weigh up the pros and cons of the uprising. We do see these conversations, but in snippets and asides - the way they would seem to these panicking people - and all the time inter-cut with scenes involving both the hijackers and the control tower. It all happens simultaneously in a heightened present-tense that we are unused to seeing in American cinema as a whole. 10-, 15-, 20-minute sequences taking place in this manner are commonplace, but not entire films.
The result is a breathless, inescapable empathy with the characters that means we are forced to experience the events with all the relentless immediacy that they do. This is how the film manages to persuade, or rather emphatically shout-down, its potential critics: by managing to put them as closely as possible in the shoes of those on board - a proposition that no amount of critical detachment can make you unaffected by. United 93's use of time thus manages to ensure that the old cliché of "it makes you feel as if you’re there" has never, ever, been more true.
And what exactly does it mean to be put on board one of the planes that changed the entire face of the current political landscape?
Apart from its “respectful” approach, one of the things that has been most praised about United 93 is its perceived 'apolitical' stance. Commentators from all sides of the political spectrum have applauded this: left-wing critics have praised the lack of overt patriotism, right-wing pundits have been relieved that there are no liberal 'conspiracy theories' on show, and the largely unaffiliated have just been glad that they aren't having any agendas shoved down their throats. All in all, most people generally seem pleasantly surprised by how uncommitted the film is.
However, as I have already touched on to an extent, this is not - and cannot be - entirely the case. Of course, in its broadest sense, everything is political: politics touches literally every part of everything in our world and popular culture is certainly no exception - indeed it is often the front line on which a great deal of political battles are fought. Even the tamest, most unassuming Hollywood children's film will contain a multitude of political assumptions and implications if one looks for them. It is unlikely, then, that a film depicting an event with all the clear political ramifications of 9/11 would avoid being political itself - it's a nice idea, but an impossible one.
So what is United 93 saying politically?
Whilst actually watching the film there is little time to even ponder this question. As I have said, for pretty well its entire time span we are being assaulted emotionally and viscerally in a bubble of present-tense calamity - there is no room for the intellectual, no room for outside perspective. I do certainly acknowledge that the context in which this flight took place - specifically its real-life 5-year aftermath - does add to the viewing experience: I would not have been sobbing like a child in front of the screen if this were a film about any old fictionalised hijacking. This broader context, however, is largely subliminal and not directly the result of anything in the film itself. No: in keeping with the subjectivity of the piece, it - like the passengers - is aware of little outside its own immediate situation.
This is what makes United 93 appear apolitical, yet it is also in fact the reason why it is far from it.
There were moments towards the start of the film - before the critical part of my brain had been forced to entirely shut down - at which I thought to myself how similar a project this seemed to be to Elephant, Van Sant's take on the Columbine high schools shootings of 1999. The way the camera observed the mundane comings and goings of normal people, soon to be involved in an extraordinary situation, felt at this point as if it could be attempting the same sort of third-person perspective of events. It seemed as if it might be creating an observational vision of this dramatic day that would allow the audience to take stock of it from a distance. In fact, no comparison could be less apt.
As James Whitfield has noted in his feature on the film, Elephant is a highly self-conscious work that is acutely aware of the political and social context of the events it depicts. It calmly shows us numerous different potential 'reasons' that have been cited for why the massacre might have taken place (violent video games, closeted homosexuality, neo-Nazi-ism), and does so in order to question our perceptions and reactions - issuing a challenge that dares us to re-examine all the ways in which the tragedy has been hijacked to serve different political motives. It is, in perverse way, an extremely objective piece of politicised cinema because of its almost maddening sense of calm and intellectual detachment in the face of hysteria: even its style of slow, long-shot takes speaks of its political attitude. United 93, all close ups and frenzied editing, is political for exactly opposite reasons: it attempts to show no authorial perspective, and - in so doing - indirectly makes hysteria itself its political message.
For what can we learn about September 11th from United 93? Well, we learn that it was a tragic, devastatingly painful day in which many Americans lost their lives, and that it was an attack that was motivated by - and, as far as the film shows us, solely by - Islamic fundamentalism. What in fact is there, in this accurate description of the insights offered by the film, that goes against the reactionary, unfeasibly short-sighted, dangerously vengeful ideology propagated by Bush as justification for a disastrous foreign policy, and homeland control, ever since? I would argue that no war has ever been fought, and no terrorist act ever committed, that was motivated purely by religious zeal alone: there are always other reasons, be they political, geographical, economic or ideological. Yet, like Bush's speeches, United 93 suggests nothing of the potential reasons behind the attack beyond the inherent “evil” of the terrorists and their dedication to an absurd interpretation of the Muslim faith. No attempt to understand, no looking back into the past - it is all present and future: these passengers are faced with a seemingly random, uncontextualised, threat and must fight it unquestioningly. As a title-card that originally ran at the end of an early cut of the film (wisely removed before commercial release) read: "America's War On Terror had begun..."
I don’t want to appear over-dramatic, but this emotional, non-intellectualised, view of 9/11 is precisely the kind that can be used as justification for, say, the "Shock and Awe" decimation of Afghanistan, the invasion and complete destabilisation of Iraq or, now, continuing the bombardment of Lebanon. It is this kind of mentality that makes people believe that it is even possible to wage a war against "Terror", and that it is military - not diplomatic, economic or political - action that is necessary within the regions that produce the terrorists.
I know that it may seem grossly unfair to lay such implications at the door of United 93 - and in some ways it is: I am almost surprised to find myself so criticising a film that I was so impressed by. I do feel the urge to argue with myself, pointing out that - as stated a thousand times - the film is merely trying to show the events on board of one of these hijacked planes as they happened, and that is all: of course there would be no context, no understanding. There is a sense in which the film could be almost be seen to be merely like the terrible day itself: an emotive, devastating stimulus which can then be interpreted a multitude of different ways, twisted to fit any number of political agendas. Indeed, I am clearly doing this myself to an extent.
Yet there is one particular moment of the film that finally stops me from coming to this generous conclusion. It is the very first few minutes, minutes that unavoidably set up a certain context for the film that is to follow…
Over darkness, in a hushed tone, we hear an Arabic voice, untranslated, reciting an Islamic prayer. As the prayer continues we fade up on a view of the Boston skyline at dawn, the words floating over the skyscrapers. Finally, we cut to a hotel room in which some Middle Eastern men - the soon-to-be hijackers - are knelt praying with the Qu'ran on the bed in front of them. They finish their ritual and leave.
It is certainly brave of Greengrass to show the hijackers in almost the same humanist light that he grants the passengers: he shows their nervousness, their hesitations - he even shows us one saying "I love you" to an unknown person on the phone before he gets on the plane, in just the same way that the passengers will later do when they know they are about to die. The moment too, in which everyone on board are praying to their respective gods, is - on one level - a stroke of near genius: it shows that everyone on that flight was human, yet it shows the futility, the desperate sadness of our divided modern world.
So I do believe that Greengrass has his heart in the right place: interviews have shown him to be an intelligent, caring, politically aware person (as has his first film, Bloody Sunday ). With that in mind, I find it particularly disappointing that he chose to start United 93 in the fashion described above. Putting Islam at the very centre of the film - having a Muslim prayer be the first thing the audience experiences, placing it alongside ominous music and a shot of a skyline - all but simplistically states that this is the one and only cause of 9/11. There has been a decision made here to juxtapose words, sounds and imagery in a way not seen anywhere else in the film, and it is also the only time the action strays outside the largely minute-by-minute time frame. This is because this is one of the only times the film seems to step outside of its self-defined project of simply showing - the only attempt made at saying something, and it carries an unfortunate amount of political weight.
Essentially, were it not for this one scene I would feel able to join most other critics and say that as a whole the film takes the admirable stance of being mere reportage (my criticisms of its conjectures notwithstanding). I would also be able to assume that any misinterpretation of what it has to say (such as the well-publicised verbal abuse hurled at two Muslim women by United 93 audience members) speaks ill purely of the perpetrators themselves. Without this misguided little moment of judgment on Greengrass' part I would have no problem whatsoever with the presentation of the terrorists or of Islam at all: of course these people would have been praying on board the plane (and prior to the flight) - their religion is what gave them the determination to carry out their horrendous task. It is not, however, the be-all and end-all of why this task was planned in the first place, and to suggest that it is via a shot-and-dialogue combination like the one found here is to unwittingly align oneself to a false and simple-minded conception of the Middle East situation.
As it is, therefore, I can instead only say that most of the film is many times more moving, many times more effective, and - yes - many times more "respectful" than we had any right to expect. Indeed, I have to return again to the fact that United 93 is an excellent film in almost all respects: were it not for the political baggage that the subject unavoidably brings with it I would probably have no trouble labelling it a borderline masterpiece for its unprecedented success as an exercise in terrifying realism. The political, however, cannot - and should not - be overlooked when it comes to a theme such as this. The first film about the most important event of the 21st century thus far may have managed to escape much of the dishonest, self-serving politics that the mainstream media have attached to this subject, but it has not been able to strip itself entirely of propaganda.