In reviews of Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (IMDB), there is a tendency to begin the review by invoking the politics of representing 9/11. Writing in the Village Voice, Dennis Lim explains that the film has been discussed “almost as if it were itself some kind of terror attack.” Meanwhile Manhola Dargis comments in The New York Times that United 93 is “persuasively narrated [and] scrupulously tasteful,” implicitly seeking to assure audiences that the film is not exploiting the tragedy. As Dana Stevens points out, these reviews and others like them illustrate “the discomfort that we still feel about representations of that dreadful day.” And United 93 and its reception clearly points to the degree to which these questions are unresolved and will likely remain unresolved for some time. When I’ve discussed United 93, I’ve argued that these questions have less to do with “readiness” and more to do with “appropriateness,” about how the story gets told.
Greengrass approaches the material with what can best be described as a docu-thriller style. Using handheld cameras and other verite techniques, United 93 positions itself as presently history as it really happened. While Greengrass is careful to emphasize that we don’t know with any certainty exactly what happened on the plane, the film positions itself as offering an authentic historical narrative, one that in Greengrass’ terms depicts “the DNA of our times.” But as Paul Farhi of The Washington Post points out, United 93 does go far beyond what we know about the attacks, and it’s worth asking how the film’s “plausible truth” will contribute to the national narrative of September 11, a debate that is most explicitly felt around the decision to change the title card at the conclusion of the film. As Lim points out, the title card originally read “America’s war on terror had begun,” suggesting a Bush-style memorialization of the war, but the new title card (“Dedicated to the memory of all those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.”) recasts the story slightly, suggesting a more somber memorialization.
At the same time, the film deploys many of the techniques of an action thriller, cutting quickly between the various scenes of action: the cockpit and the passenger area, but also the air traffic control centers in New York and Boston, as well as the NORAD defense center. The establishing sequences, designed to suggest that September 11 began as “just another day,” set up the passengers as everyday people with normal lives who are just trying to get home to their families (that the passengers are always characterized in terms of family and not other forms of identity also seems significant). However, the film underplays the action elements. Todd Beamer’s famous line, “Let’s roll,” was underplayed, spoken almost as an aside rather than the “rally the troops” moment it became in subsequent representations of 9/11. In addition, unlike most thrillers, we already know what happens, which for me only increased the tension of watching as I anticipated the inevitable events that were about to unfold. My response to this mixture was one of cognitive and emotional dissonance, which may be part of the point. The experience of watching the film was utterly grueling, the tension provoked by the film still palpable the following morning. This tension was reinforced by the use of the shaky camera and the use of an approximately real-time narrative.
It’s worth noting that discussions of the film have provoked conversations about the social and political “role” of the cinema in representing history. The question asking whether audiences are “ready” for a film about 9/11 is a complicated one, and given that I saw the film in a half-empty theater, it may be the case that many people are still resistant to revisiting these tragic events, and if the Box Office Mojo numbers are any indication ($3.8 million on Friday), it appears that the film isn’t finding a terribly wide audience. United 93 is a difficult film to watch, as my review indicates. Last night, I would have emphatically recommended not seeing it, but this morning, my response is a little more tempered. I think the film should be commended for avoiding easy answers, but I remain uncertain about what, if anything, the film has added to our national conversation about September 11.