Last night Mrs. ShrinkWrapped and I saw "United 93." It was a very intense, often harrowing, experience. Since we knew the outcome from the start, the tension came from the filmmakers ability to induce an effortless suspension of disbelief; you felt that you were int he airport, in the air traffic control centers, inside the plane. The people, while shown with minimal character development (the film proceeds in "real time") were recognizable human beings facing unprecedented situations. It took me several minutes to catch my breath when it ended, yet ultimately, it was a positive and very optimistic evening. The movie also helped me understand something that I have written about many times, yet grasped in a much more visceral way while watching a movie that had the feel of a documentary.
I have lived in the New York City suburbs for most of my life. I grew up in a middle class neighborhood at a time when anti-social behavior was still ground for school suspension and expulsion. Violence and hate were always kept at a distance. I suspect a great many of my contemporaries were similarly insulated from the hatreds that fester in some of the darker places.
From time to time I witnessed violence; you do not spend four years working around Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital without seeing the occasional violent, agitated, psychotic patient. In most such situations, the Hospital Police were available to ensure that the dangers were minimized. Within the confines of a Psychiatric ward, rage was not uncommon, but was always contained and containable. Later, when most of my professional time was spent within a consultation room, it became even more unusual to see violent emotions expressed in any other than verbal terms.
For those of us who have been lucky enough to live in the United States, a civilized society which, despite all its faults tends to work, and tends to protect its most vulnerable citizens from the monsters that share our planet, coming face to face with fanaticism and hatred is terrifying and infuriating.
"United 93" more than anything shows the kind of hatred and religious certainty that fuels the violence and force that is required to murder another human being by plunging a knife into their throat. The violence of "United 93" feels real; we are there. The murderous rage expressed is not the rage of a thug who wants our money, or even of the sadistic sociopath who gains pleasure from our suffering (though that is undeniably part of the terrorist's psychology); it is something far worse. It is the violence that arises from the nullification of our humanity, from the frenzied religiosity which is required in order to murder without a thought and without a recognition of the victim's shared humanity. This is an implacable hatred which cannot be appeased, cannot be reasoned with, cannot be forestalled.
Few of us have any ability to comprehend such unprovoked rage; yet the movie provokes very similar, complementary feelings within us. It would be difficult to watch "United 93" without feeling rage. When the second plane hits the world trade tower, the response of the Air Traffic Controllers watching is disbelief, followed by a determination to get back to their jobs, to work, and protect who and what they can; they needed to not think about what they had just seen if they were going to do their jobs, and it is to their great credit that they continued to function after this greatest of disasters.
The passengers on United 93 had so such gift of distance; they were confronted by a choice of helpless acquiescence or an active engagement. Yet they also knew that only by meeting violence with equal or greater violence would they have any chance to survive or to prevent their deaths from costing other lives.
Here is where I believe so many who oppose taking an aggressive fight against Islamic terror arises. Those who want to treat terrorism as a police matter better prosecuted in the shadows (where there is actually plenty of anti-terror work being done) are making a statement that they do not want to be forced to confront their own feelings of helplessness, terror, and rage at those who attacked us on 9/11. All indications are that within the three planes that hit their intended targets, the passengers did as they were told; they sat in their seats and behaved themselves. They remained helpless, and terrified, just as airline passengers had always been counseled to do, and went to their deaths in that state. The passengers of United 93 had the gift of knowledge; they knew about the other planes while they still had a chance to act. Whether Greengrass has all the details correct, and the fact that all of us can recognize the struggle of the passengers on that doomed plane suggests he succeeded, is less important than that he got the emotions correct. And he reveals to us the great gift that the passengers of United 93 have granted us, and that the actors and crew of "United 93" have preserved and recreated for us: in our comfort and our freedoms, we have not become too refined to act when action is necessary.
Update: Rick Moran has an excelelnt review of the movie and noticed the same thing that made the film so memorable to me:
There is a moment in the film United 93 where director Paul Greengrass takes a small step backward from the unrelenting intimate universe into which he has boldly thrust the audience and allows a glimmer of the larger truth of September 11 to be revealed.
Having committed themselves to their heroic effort to take back the cockpit, the passengers are in position in the back of the plane, the larger, stronger men occupying the first three rows closest to the terrorists. Then, it hits you. The look on their faces as they steel themselves to make the attempt mirrors exactly the looks on the faces of the hijackers just prior to their attack as the terrorists also had to summon up the courage to carry out their dastardly deed. [Emphasis mine-SW]
Vanderleun recognizes the heroism in the ordinary American men and women on that terrible day:
"United 93," from the first frame to the last, simply and clearly lets you see what happened high in the air on that day. It is, as the phrase on the poster says, "The plane that did not reach its target." Instead, it reached something unintended and much higher. It became and will remain a legend; an integral part of the tapestry of the American myth from which we all draw what strength remains to us, and, in the future, will surely need to draw upon even more deeply. Like the best of our legends, it arises out of our ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
"United 93" lets you see, without footnotes or the faintest tinge of an agenda of any sort, how ordinary people in one of the most banal yet dangerous modern settings, refused at the last to be cowed or frightened and, knowing full well that all was probably up for them, still fought to save their lives or, in the end, thwart the designs that evil had brought on board.
As Vanderleun puts it, "You don't "review" this film if you have an ounce of soul left to you. You watch it."