Tonight began the 9/11 Film Series on the Winona State University campus with a screening of United 93.
United 93 is not the only film dramatization about the attack. In fact, there have been at least nine films dramatizing the events of September 11th and of those, four have focused on the events aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Yet, United 93 is distinct among them. Although it is a dramatization, the film has a great deal of detail that makes it a mergence of dramatic and documentary filmmaking.
First, the cast includes a number of real-life participants playing themselves. Ben Sliney, the FAA’s National Operations Manager, plays himself as do other FAA officials. Several civilian air traffic controllers in the Newark control tower also play themselves and the pilots and stewardesses aboard Flight 93 are played by real life airline pilots and flight attendants. In the scenes at the Northeast Air Defense Command Center, most of the military personnel are played by real-life military air traffic controllers, including Major James Fox who was in the command center on September 11th.
Second, because a few years passed between the event and the making of United 93, the filmmakers were able to reference the 9/11 Commission Report as well as other reporting on the event to recreate the details as fully as possible. This film also incorporates news footage from that day.
Lastly, the film was made in cooperation with the surviving family members of those aboard Flight 93 who were able to provide personal details about the passengers. In fact, proceeds from United 93‘s theatrical run were donated to funding a memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
United 93 was released in 2006 after some controversy. A few theaters pulled the trailer after complaints and production of the film was criticized for fear that it would exploit the tragedy. There is an important point to be taken from that criticism; filmmakers don’t want to be perceived as ambulance chasers.
However, two questions should be asked of the “it’s too soon” criticism:
- What are we waiting for?
- When will it be time to make films about this?
It would seem that we are waiting for a point of perspective from which we can say something interesting and relevant about the attack. The passage of time cools the passions both for the filmmaker and for the audience and allows the emotional and intellectual space for a more reasoned perception on the events, so waiting to make a film is reasonable.
But the real issue is not so much time as it is substance. Filmmakers must have a vision of what they wish to accomplish and the film ought to be evaluated on the quality and substance of that vision and how well it is achieved on screen.
This raises two additional points. First is how United 93 functions for the viewer. Although it may seem like a strange comparison, United 93 plays very much like a horror film. Just like a ghost story or a slasher film, United 93 puts the audience through a controlled trauma. By watching this film we are able to re-experience the fear of that moment and study both the attack and our reactions to it. And by (re)experiencing the awfulness from the safety of a theater seat, we are given an opportunity to come to grips with what happened and start to deal with it.
This leads to my second point, which is that it is important for filmmakers and other artists to engage with 9/11. There is an analogy to be made between what happened to the culture on September 11, 2001 and what happens to an individual after a traumatic event. If the anxieties and fears resulting from the trauma are not dealt with, they are likely to manifest themselves in other ways, possibly in negative or self-destructive forms. If these unresolved feelings are left unchecked it is quite possible that they form new prejudices or amplify existing ones, as evidenced by the intolerance faced by the Muslim community, or lead to a derailment of our critical faculties, as evidenced by the mainstream media’s compliance with the invasion of Iraq. When films, of whatever genre or style, deal honestly for these themes and issues, they offer the possibility—not the promise but the possibility—of moving the viewers toward an understanding of what 9/11 means.
There are two dominant themes in United 93 that suggest the film’s take on 9/11. The first is the subversion of a complex system (the aviation system) by the actions of the terrorists, the establishment’s inability to cope with that subversion, and the initiative of a few individuals who take matters into their own hands in order to solve the problem. In that, United 93 is a very American story and the picture reaffirms the values of independence, sacrifice, and individuality that are deeply rooted in American history.
The other dominant theme of United 93 is the contrast of the ancient with the modern. Prayers are uttered throughout the film both by the terrorists and by the passengers while technology transmits final messages to loved ones. Airliners, which represent the conquest of man’s technology over the vastness of geography, are used as a weapon of mass death. The terrorists use crude edged weapons to take over a complex piece of transportation and the passengers similarly use brute force in their revolt. One of the final images of United 93 is a frantic struggle by various pairs of hands for control of the wheel of the airplane. That juxtaposition of imagery suggests that 9/11 represented a clash of the ancient and the modern and the age that the attack ushered in would be defined by conflicts over whether ancient or modern hands would steer humanity into the future.
United 93 is being presented as a part of a series. But this picture is an important first step in that it reminds us of the fear and chaos of that day and provides a metaphor for the larger conflict that would define the decade to come.