Promoting United 93

During my afternoon Media and History course yetserday, one of my students asked me my response to the controversy over the promotion of United 93, which depicts in real time the 9/11 hijacking of United flight 93, the plane that eventually crashed in Pennsylvania. The student’s question clearly tapped into some concerns shared by his classmates, with the question provoking a discussion that lasted for nearly half the class. So far, Universal has refused to pull the trailer for the film, despite protests over the trailer’s graphic depiction of the hijacking. I don’t know that I have a specific answer to the student’s question about the “appropriateness” of the trailer, but among other questions, the controversy points to the still unresolved place that 9/11 will have in our cultural memory and about what political purpose the 9/11 films might serve. At the same time, the debate about the trailer remins us of the public nature of movie theaters, and I think this public status is crucial here (TV commercials advertising the film would likely be less controversial, I’d imagine).

While I’m actually not sure if I’ve seen the actual trailer, I caught a short infotainment segment about United 93 shown before the trailers for both Inside Man and . The short clips did little to reassure me that the film would go beyond exploiting the hijacking, and many of my students who have seen the trailer expressed similar fears (one or two students in particular criticized Universal for giving only 10% of the film’s profits to charity, a detail mentioned in this Newsweek article). Significantly, the informational segment that I saw places emphasis on the relationship that director Paul Greengrass cultivated with many of the victims’ family members, with their interviews structuring the short segment in order to emphasize the film’s emotional credibility. In fact, the same Newsweek article stipulates that Greengrass received unanimous support from the families of the survivors, some of whom hope the film will raise public awareness on airport and port security.

At the same time, the trailer emphasizes the director’s stated purpose of showing the events as they “actually happened,” suggesting both a documentary impulse and an immersion into the event itself. In attempting to represent the flight as “realistically” as possible, Greengrass has gone to great effort to track down details about the passengers, even inquiring about what people were wearing, and it’s clear that Greengrass has won the trust of these family members. However, these claims about the film’s authenticity have the potential to lead to the imposition of a singular interpretation of what happened, essentially simplifying the morning’s events. I have some concerns about the real-time narrative as well, especially in that it will reinforce the idea of the hijacking as a punctual event and not one that has a past and future.

I’m curious enough about film and politics that I will likely see this film soon after it opens, even with my serious reservations about it. But I do have to wonder about the motivations for the film and its place in contemporary political discourse, particulalry the claim that Americans have “forgotten” the events of September 11. At least one conservative blogger has been trumpeting the film, commenting that “too many people, including conservatives, have forgotten the events of 9-11 and how United 93 was the first battle in the war on a brutal enemy bent on the destruction of the US.” As if any of us could forget 9/11. Perhaps instead we should consider the ways in which the actions of a group of brutal terorists have been used to justify a global “war on teror” that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people.


  1. A. Horbal Said,

    April 7, 2006 @ 10:52 am

    I’ll be interested to see what kind of role this film might play in solidifying United 93’s place in our nation’s mythology. There is definitely a potential for people to embrace this film as an “official history” of some sort, a tendency that will be buttressed by all its trappings of realism. United 93 might make for an interesting focal point in any number of conversations: about film and history, film in popular culture, Hollywood as conservative/liberal…

    Great overview…

  2. Chuck Said,

    April 7, 2006 @ 11:25 am

    Right, you’ve articulated this point a bit more concisely than I did. I have been intrigued by the way in which the United 93 controversy has emphasized the role of film in shaping cultural memory, and perhaps it calls into question sweeping generaliztions about “liberal” Hollywood.

    And I think it’s interesting to compare the reaction to United 93 to the discussion of the TV movie depicting the same events, which seems to have more or less disappeared from memory.

  3. A. Horbal Said,

    April 7, 2006 @ 11:30 am

    Case in point: I completely forgot about that…

  4. D. King Said,

    April 19, 2006 @ 11:10 pm

    The fact that Americans would be so upset about a movie that points out the facts that have lead us into a war we are now still fighting. I don’t quite understand why some liberal would be upset about this film and not voice their vile opinions about such movies as “Pearl Harbor” and “We Were Soldiers”. I believe that American dig too much into others and not focused enough of themselves. So if you don’t want to see the movie take the money and get out of debt, and pay for college.

  5. Chuck Said,

    April 19, 2006 @ 11:20 pm

    If you looked hard enough, you probably could find “some liberal” who voiced negative opinions about Pearl Harbor, but in my case it would be because Ben Affleck can’t act.

    I’m sure that United 93 has plenty of “facts.” Whether those facts justify our going to war in Iraq and killing tens of thousands of innocent people is another story altogether.

    I’ll see the film because I’m curious. Saving the cost of a ten dollar movie ticket isn’t exactly going to pay off my student loans.

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