'United 93': A must- or must-not-see?

Sometimes a trailer is a little too good.

I haven’t run across anyone who walks away from the United 93 trailer unrattled. In case you haven’t heard, this is the first big-screen "9/11 movie," an account of what happened aboard the best-documented hijacked flight, United Flight 93, bound for San Francisco. (I effortlessly missed the TV movie of the same name, whereas I’m agonizing over this. I suppose I just expect tastelessness from movies-of-the week, and set my filters accordingly.) The ordeal of the Flight 93 passengers — who allegedly banded together to overwhelm the hijackers, a heroic act that cost them their lives when the plane went down in rural Pennsylvania — was the most natural story to tell (if natural’s the word). Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy) will be the one telling it. And from the look of the trailer, he may have done a good job. Maybe too good.

I don’t think I believe in right and wrong, when it comes to which stories one ought to tell. Certainly, some stories are more openly pernicious than others; some are downright inappropriate. Some are difficult, but necessary. Apart from the political considerations behind the making of a 9/11 movie, what sort of emotional calculus should the moviegoer perform before choosing to see such a thing?

I can tell you that this trailer left me feeling jelly-legged,queasy, angry, and feeling those red bursts of murderous rage that keptme up nights (along with sheer terror) in the weeks that followed 9/11.We described what we saw on our screens as "like a movie." And sonaturally, we tried to write ourselves into that movie. Not one of ushasn’t dreamt/nightmared/fantasized about what he/she might have doneaboard that flight. Not one us hasn’t imagined him or herself a victim,a hero, or some combination thereof.

But now there is a movie. And here’s the difficult part:Reality doesn’t furnish us with Jack Ryans and John McClanes. There isprobably no yippy-ky-yay moment in United 93. (Or, at least,there’d better not be. I can’t imagine anything more grotesque.) Thereare merely kinds of death, minor variations on an inevitable catastophethat may define the victims, grant them a modicum of agency, butcertainly don’t redeem them or us or anything. Any definition of"victory" must be revised groundward from the usual, weightlessHollywood norm.

And yet, I’m not sure I want to see that either. I’m tempted to saysuch a thing is beyond fiction, but that’s extraordinarily subjectiveand narrow. Clearly, the Holocaust isn’t beyond fiction. Nor any othergreat, hideous human tragedy we seek to cope with and control throughstory. This is what we do, how we heal. The timing doesn’t feel right,and it may never feel right. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell thetale.


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  • Liz

    Here is a case where we’re not expecting made-for-TV-movie quality, so that eases some of the fear about misrepresenting the story or downplaying its ability to affect us emotionally without bringing the cheese factor in. This is definitely the type of film that is made for the purpose of reminding the public about something that collectively happened to all of us. As far as a reminder, I say we need that! We have so many diversions and are faced with “big news” daily that this event is still in the public consciousness but not always openly discussed. It’ll be good to see what kind of effect this film might have on our collective memory. Maybe it’ll do some good.

  • ScriptGrrl

    Agree with all your sentiments. The trailer was really disturbing and made me uncomfortable. I had to look away three times during the stream. I can’t imagine sitting through 2 hours of that and probably won’t go to see the film.

  • Tim L

    Man Scott you are on your game today. Another fantastic piece. I love your reference to controlling human history through the story. That is definitly going in my next essay!

  • David

    I think we can take solace in the fact that the movie is pro-American and will highlight the heroic acts of the passengers aboard the flight. It will be interesting to watch the public react to this movie so soon after the tragedy. As long as it’s done responsibly – and I’m sure it is – there’s a place for this film.

  • jodi

    i’d feel better if they were donating all the proceeds to the flight 93 fund they keep promoting at the end of their commercials.

  • bjm

    no matter how good (or bad) this movie turns out to be, it just seems wrong that somebody is profitting off of this. we can all say that movies are made for the purpose of making art, and/or for telling this heroic story. but we all know in reality that they wouldn’t get made if somebody wasn’t making a buck somewhere along the way. it just seems as though they are looting and pillaging the memories and lives of the people who lived through this tragic event.

  • Ep Sato

    I heard the flight 93 victims’ families gave their okay for this movie to be made. IMHO, at least 50% of the proceeds from this should go to the families of those who perished. Those of us who donated to the victims fund, blood to the red cross, or who visited New York City to pay our respects, question the sincerity of Hollywood’s “homage”.
    On a different level, the movie’s vision of what happened is one interpretation of the story. If someone made a flight 93 movie with a final scene where the plane gets shot down by our own government, there’d be a huge stink about it. What I mean to say is the vision presented as “fact” in the movie still has its controversies.

  • Ptichmeister

    I agree with this statement “I can tell you that this trailer left me feeling jelly-legged, queasy…” I did not know what to expect by watching the trailer – but once the plan went into the tower – it all became surreal again and had to stop watching after they showed the second plane hitting. I am not sure if I am ready to see this movie, nor the American public (esp us NJ/NYers) that actually saw the horror on that day – and not on TV. If this movie does make a profit – it should go to the families and not to pad the studios pocket.

  • Tim

    I agree with ScriptGrrl. When I saw the trailer (I orginally thought it was for Snakes on a Plane), I was a little uncomfortable. I probably won’t be seeing this one.

  • Jason

    I actually did watch the made-for-tv movie of the same name, and I am not a habitual made-for-tv movie viewer. It was actually decent, and got tears out of me on several occasions.

  • Meredith

    After I saw the trailer…the TRAILER, tears were running down my cheeks. I was very rattled by it. At first I thought that the movie was just too soon, but then I realized that no matter when it came out, I’m sure I would have that same reaction. I also remember during all of the 9-11 aftermath, that I knew that there would be movies someday…

  • mgf

    i have to agree, made me sick to my stomach… it might be hard to watch. One of those movies that you will need to see but are not looking forward to it.

  • chuckles

    As long as it is reverent and well-made, then it deserves a profit. As Scott said, people have been turning horrible events into profitable films for years (you think Spielberg donated all the profits of Schindler’s List to charity?). Yes it does seem a little too soon, but I can guarantee you that this is going to be a far less offensive movie than whatever crap Oliver Stone can come up with. This looks pretty straightforward and the fact that Paul Greengrass (who distilled another real life horrific event, Bloody Sunday in Ireland, into a remarkable docudrama) makes me feel like this should be ok. You know Oliver Stone (who has been grasping at artistic straws of late) is going to take a far less reverential tone with his World Trade Center movie.

  • brandonk

    I don’t think they should have made this movie yet. It’s still to affecting, and when I watch the trailer, I get distinctly uncomfortable. I’m definitely not watching the movie.

  • professor74

    There is never a good time to make a movie like this but I am glad that this will be the first one out. I saw a little behind-the-scenes that talked with the family members and they described their feelings on the movie. In fact, I think they were highly involved in the process of making the movie.

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