Saturday, April 29, 2006

United 93 (Greengrass, 2006)

First, a few points:

The film has every right to exist.
It is not "too soon."
The subject has never been taboo for me.
I strongly believe that this film is not an accurate representation of the actual events that day. The reasons why are outside the scope of this review.

That said, United 93 is an extremely successful film.

When I began watching the film, I was immediately troubled by the fact that I could not discover a reason for this film's existence. A labored enactment of speculated events rarely has inherent value in itself. Similarly, the film's aesthetic seemed to be the standard attempt at "documentary realism," which is generally an excuse for not developing a style and promoting your work as "raw" or "realistic." It also seemed that the film was relying solely on bitter ironies for impact: a woman taking her pills, a reminder to fasten a seatbelt, people making plans for after they reach their destination... all these events, with the knowledge that these people will die, are documented emphatically.

As time went on, around the halfway mark, it all fell into place. This film is not a political film. It will be seen as such by many, but a political message is not intrinsically a part of the film's text except tangentially (the film depicts a government's failure to react properly to the events); any political response says exactly zero about the film and only reveals the responder's own personal political leanings, biases, and hang ups. This is a film about humans under a stressful situation, and it earns its "documentary realism" camera style by the fact that its narrative has a primal immediacy that more or less demands the aesthetic.

The film has a minimalist approach that I find intriguing by default, since I'm a minimalist in preference and expression myself. I was thankful that this was not a "Hollywood" movie; there are no heroes here. My stating this is not to undermine the real life people who parallel the characters in the film, though; as they are portrayed in the film, they respond as any man or woman could be expected to respond under the circumstances. To deify people for attempting to stay alive and failing is to say they were in the "right place at the right time," since the heroic status is afforded only by the opportunity, not the action. No, these people were desperately, hopelessly in the wrong place at a very wrong time, and they tried to survive. Similarly, some potentially "harrowing, climactic, pulse-pounding!" events are presented quietly, in the dark confines of air control towers, with planes represented by green squares with lines through them.

In regard to the film as a depiction of actual events: as I've said, I do not think this is how it happened. The fact remains, though, that real people were on the real plane, and I think they did fight back. I think this film is an accurate depiction of what would happen if the plane went down as depicted, and is an accurate estimation of the collective mindset of the people on the plane. Greengrass wisely opts for a lack of differention between the passengers. In film, a human being photographed is instantly recognized by the viewer as a human being. It's only once the character begins to be "characterized" by symbolic gestures and "revealing" dialogue that he begins to seem a synthetic production of a screenwriter's imagination. Characterization can be done well, and it can be a great thing, but there is a power (and, again, a primalcy) in knowing less about the mind behind the face that is represented. Mystery is a human quality, and Greengrass uses it as such.

The film's structure, oddly enough, resembles a film from last year that may seem an odd comparison: Wolf Creek. Much of the first half is muted, building up even as the day's iconic events (the crashing into the towers) take place. However, unlike that film, the climax is not a devolution, but an ascension and a justification of the previous events. This film probably says everything about human nature Wolf Creek purported to say, but successfully and without them being necessitated only as part of a larger genre canvas.

There is only one glaring facet that bothers me, and that is the inconsistency of subtitling the hijackers' dialogue. There is a different psychological association between translated and untranslated foreign dialogue. It is almost as if Greengrass wanted to make their intentions clear to the audience in some scenes while making them seem foreign (not in the country of origin sense) in others. Both instances can be devalued as pandering to the audience's mentality instead of maintaining a clear artistic vision. Imagine watching the quiet conversation in which the hijackers' fears and anxieties are revealed, but the dialogue is untranslated and we only know what they're talking about by the worry on their faces. Or, alternately, the wild screaming in the cock pit elevated to understandable speech rather than hollerings of someone apparently not worth understanding at that particular moment. I would've preferred to have none of it subtitled, but consistency either way would be welcome and would sidestep this minor bias the film presents (whether intentional on the parts of the filmmakers or not).

I've tried to avoid any political discussion in this review of the film outside of saying that I don't think the film is an entirely accurate depiction of the events of that day, because as I've said, the film is remarkable in its depiction of how people may react under a hijacking situation. It's unfair to write the film off as an aid to the "war on terror" or anything else so classifiedly political. I do think that those viewers that accept this film as an absolute truth are reacting improperly, and there's a danger in that, but it is not the film's responsibility to interpret itself for the viewer. That's like hating a band because some people think they're metal, when you know they're thrash. The consensus does not change the film itself, except from a social perspective. Any one viewing the film should view it without considering how others have reacted, but rather how they alone react. Analyzing a film's social impact is academia, not art response.

I will say that the film's ending is the only respectable way to end the film. If I were given the choice, I would surely end it the very same way, which is rare especially for a film this mainstream.

6 Comments:

Anonymous astor said...

k, finally found this. (you may wish to have a link to your film journal in your RT journal so people who go there when you direct them to your "journal" will know what's going on.)

- The hijacker's dialogue wasn't translated when it was heard by the passengers, who wouldn't have known what they were saying. (Passenger's POV.)

- Your statement that you strongly believe things aren't as depicted is, of course, tantalising - as I and many others believe this film depicted as close to the truth as we can know. If you don't wish you state your own beliefs of what you think happened that day, you may wish to say "my thinking is in line with ______", with a link to information.

11:18 PM  
Blogger Nikolus Ziegler said...

It's not that I don't want to share my beliefs, it's just that I don't want to use a review of a film as an excuse to pontificate like so many other critics.

There's evidence that strongly suggests that there was an on-board emergency early on to the extent that debris began to fall long before impact, including an entire engine that was found miles from the crash site. Eye and ear witness accounts tell of this trail of debris, its falling from the sky, a loud boom, like an explosion, while the plane was still in the air, etc. There is some reason to believe that the plane was shot down by an American fighter jet, and that could very well be the cause of the debris falling, but I won't go that far because I don't want that kind of argument. The main point is that debris was falling long before impact, an engine was lost, and the events depicted do not show this nor do reports by our government. The Americans rising up and martyring themselves in the name of freedom is a very nice flag to wave when we're going to war. I'm glad that the film didn't take this interpretation, if others have after the actual event.

I'll take your advice about the link in my RT journal.

12:24 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I liked Thank You For Smoking.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Nikolus Ziegler said...

I didn't even know it was playing in Bako. I doubt I'll see it in theatres.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Interesting review ... I'm still debating whether or not to see this. When it first opened, I was fervently opposed to seeing it ... but, recently, I'm thinking I might.

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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1:15 PM  

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