Tuesday, October 31, 2006

REVIEW: United 93

Forgetting the falsehood behind the truth

French author and Nobel Prize winner Andre Gide once said, “Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.” In a time in which perceptions of reality collide and truth is fleeting, cinema and art are constantly critiquing the world and age we live in. It isn’t unusual for films to tackle real issues, but what is unusual is for a film to have captured “the Truth”, with a capital T. Ever since the first interviews were made and the first trailers released, it became clear United 93 was claiming to present the real, undeniable truth behind the events of 9/11, and all of the emotional baggage that entails.

Though occasionally there was controversy, until now it was generally acceptable for directors to utilize artistic license in their portrayal of real events. Cinema was viewed as a subjective presentation of the truth, not the truth itself. When filmmakers claimed to uncover what really happened, it was still mutually understood that while it may be possible to present part of the truth, truth is too abstract to be viewed objectively. In The Untouchables, Brian DePalma focused on only four “untouchables” as opposed to the actual ten. Mel Gibson used specific events from Catholic theology in his recent presentation of the crucifixion of Christ. In Pearl Harbor, entire subplots of character development were fictionalized. Even Oliver Stone in his conspiracy-ridden film JFK ended with a text acknowledging that important government documents related to the assassination of President Kennedy would not be made available to the public until 2017.

Whereas those films focused on events that had occurred at least decades previously, the events of September 11 took place less than five years before the production of United 93. Perhaps in tackling the story of Flight 93 so soon, the studios and Paul Greengrass found themselves in a creative trap. When a country is still facing the political and global ramifications of the largest terrorist attack in its history, the issue is still controversial and the emotions still fresh. Any portrayal of events that strays away from the “reality” of what occurred runs the risk of being considered offensive, or even defamatory. Artistic license must be pushed aside in the search for “the truth”, if such a portrayal is to be well-received.

After all, a film that strives solely to present reality cannot be judged like other films. Three main criteria must be used. The first is the least important, and contributes to the second: realism. Does the film portray the events realistically? If a film is solely striving to present truth, the conventional areas of judgment – acting, directing, cinematography – are only small brushes in a larger picture. And it is in these small details that Greengrass succeeds, and succeeds well. His cast is made up of real flight attendants, actual FAA personnel, and unknown actors. The effect is that the people portrayed are just as much strangers to the audience as the people in reality. Dialogue is largely improvised, and taken from actual interviews with family members of the deceased. The cinematography has a shaking and jarring “home video” feel to it, creating the sense that one is actually on the plane with them. All these elements combine to make United 93 feel less cinematic and more real than most films based on real events.

The second criterion one must examine in regards to a film that claims to provide an authentic rendition of events (and nothing more) is authenticity itself. Is it indeed factually accurate? Is this how things really happened that day?

The answer, simply put, is yes. There are certain things we know to be true: We know that two planes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center. We know that a third plane flew into the Pentagon. We know that a fourth, United flight 93, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers attempted to overthrow the hijackers. And we know that all these events made everyone involved very surprised, very afraid, and very confused. All of this is presented in United 93. For all appearances, United 93 is as “true” as a third-party account can be.

It is with the third and final criterion, the criterion by which all films should be and usually are judged, that the film ultimately fails: artistic value. Is the film entertaining and informative? Is it a relevant and perceptive presentation of events?


In his quest for critical and ideological security, Greengrass has forgotten that cinema is not reality, but only an observation of it. The essence of reality can be captured, but reality itself can only happen once. In the case of United 93, the reality happened five years ago. In order for a film to be relevant, it must make reality even more real, in a sense, than it was before the events portrayed. And this is where United 93 falls apart – it has the appearance of truth, and the facts of truth, but in the end, cinema is more than truth. As Fellini put it, “A created thing is never invented and it is never true: it is always and ever itself.” United 93 succeeds so well in achieving its goal of being truthful that the result is too close to reality to serve any purpose as a work of art.

The only truth portrayed in United 93 is the truth that is already known. The details are left on the sidelines. Nothing new is learned, not even the passengers’ names. They are just as flat and one-dimensional as they were when we first heard about them on the news. No commentary is given about their actions, and so while we’re told what happened, we aren’t told why it matters. As a whole, the film only goes through the motions, inspiring the same feelings of sadness and pity that we already felt, and nothing more. Watching it is the equivalent of emotional masturbation, serving only as a means to be engulfed in the tragedy without the poignancy and artistry to make it worthwhile. If a film is not entertaining, educational, or emotionally and spiritually enlightening, what is its purpose?

If we leave cynicism aside, there is only one answer: homage. This is Greengrass’ tribute to the victims of 9/11, as the dedication at the end of the film explains. Nothing more. Films based on real life are nothing new. However, what dooms United 93 as work of cinema is not an unauthentic portrayal of events, but the lack thereof, and a commitment to remain so close to reality that nothing beneficial is gained. As a work of cinema and art, United 93 is only as fulfilling as reality will allow it to be. One can only be thankful that the passengers of Flight 93 are no longer around to see how, in the pursuit of realism, their actions have been cheapened and their souls forgotten.

Rating: 2/10


Blogger Souwa said...

I object. 2/10?

Whether it is using an approach close to the truth, or artistic license, the objective of a director is to portray something about the truth - an angle from which we can appreciate it.

And even though Greengrass's "angle" is already known for most, perhaps we just don't want any more interpretations. It's not about a story or character development, or how creative this can get.

10:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I object too!

-The film is a major artistic achievement. Yes, the film was "realistic" but it was also extremely intense and emotional. I was suprised while watching the film that even though I knew everything that was going to unfold, I was still completely captivated...and slightly uncomfortable.
-Just because the situation the characters were in was something that happened in real life doesnt make it less powerful. The director doesn't need to explain WHY their actions matter. George Lucas didn't have to explain WHY it mattered that Vader sacrificed himself to save Luke by getting shocked by the Emperor's lighting hand stuff, we just knew...

This is one of the best movies so far this year. 9/10

5:16 PM  
Blogger Andrew Johnson said...

If by "intense and emotional" you mean "dull and lifeless", then I fully agree.

11:58 AM  

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