United 93

Friday, July 18, 2008

The final scenes in United 93 have to be some of the most harrowing in cinema. What you witness is a frantic desire to live conflict with an insane desire to die. People become animals – rational thought gives way to instinct and barbarism, resulting in tragedy.

One of the most despairing images in this magnificent film has to be that of the passengers desperately pushing and driving one of their number towards the cockpit. The guy they're manoeuvring is a pilot of single engine planes and represents their one small hope of making it out of this alive. Knowing full well what happened to the passengers of United 93, the desperation is gut wrenching. You know they’re not going to make it and that these are the death throes of those on board.

The agony of the final moments is amplified by the way that the pilot briefly manages to get his hands on the controls. Whether this happened in real life, no one knows, but it perfectly illustrates the conflict that occurred and the conflict that is happening now. Both sides desperately want to be in the driving seat but all the time things are spiralling out of control. In the end, everyone loses and nothing is gained.

The final moments also show the way people are robbed of their dignity and humanity when they’re put up against the wall. Which isn’t to say that the passengers’ actions were unjustified. Instead they responded in kind when they were treated like animals. Their attempt to regain control was heroic but it wasn’t pretty. And I admire the way that the film doesn’t soft-pedal this. We see the passengers beat and pummel the hijackers. We also see one of the hijackers get his neck broken. This is what happens when people are backed this far into a corner. People might be able to take quite a bit (three planes apparently took quite a bit and didn’t fight back), but eventually their animal instincts are going to take over and chaos will ensue.

Something else I like about the final moments is the disturbing catharsis when the passengers overwhelm the hijackers. This is probably the last time in the ‘war on terror’ where things will be black and white. The hijackers are wrong and deserve the brutal response of their captives. After this, though, everything becomes hazy and muddy. The tragedy gets twisted and it becomes the fuel for political greed.

But in that moment where the first hijacker gets overwhelmed and killed, there’s a feeling of joy and exaltation that is primal. You’re put in the position of the passengers and you feel the excitement they must have felt – maybe we can get out of this; maybe we can regain control. But it’s a mass delusion. There’s no turning back now. Things will never be the same.

I have to feel sorry, though, for the German character who says that they should cooperate with the hijackers and who later tries to warn his captors of the impending mutiny. I don’t doubt that there were people who argued for cooperation, but making the filmic representation of this a German kind of smacks of the brave Americans clashing with the cowardly Europeans. It just sticks out too much. But I do have to agree with the passengers’ response to this guy and the way they overwhelm him. When you fear for your life you shouldn’t be led to your destruction like a lamb for the slaughter. To fight, to claw for life is the natural response. After all, this is the only chance we get. Life is precious and when someone wants to snatch it away, action must be taken.

But what’s also great about the film is that there’s no flag waving. This film isn’t a call to arms. It isn’t a rallying cry. Instead it’s a grimly realistic depiction of the chaos that ensues when barbarism overwhelms normality. When something this audacious and unexpected occurs, all the controls that keep the world in check go flying out the window.

Some of the loons out there who want to believe in ridiculous conspiracy theories will point out that the response to the tragedy was too patchy and that communication couldn’t be that bad. They’ve obviously never had a job. Sometimes it’s hard enough to communicate clearly with someone downstairs in the same office as you, let alone in an office hundreds of miles away. Plus communication between governmental departments and agencies is notoriously poor. Therefore I can well believe that the response would be so impotent.

But the tale that unfolds in air traffic control centres and at NORAD is just as engrossing as the one in the plane. Like the passengers in United 93, they’re wrestling with the enormity of the situation. No one can quite believe that this is happening and the sheer scale of the attack is beyond their comprehension. As a consequence people continually try and come to more realistic conclusions.

For instance, the first plane that gets hijacked is American Airlines 11. At first people scoff at the idea of a hijack, saying how long its been since an American airline has been taken, but then once that small nugget of information is accepted, they still can’t comprehend what the hijackers have in mind. They think that the plane might be heading for JFK or Newark. After all, who in the world would think that people would be crazy enough to fly into the World Trade Centre? It’s a giant leap to go from hijacking to suicide mission. Nothing like this has ever been done before.

A clear, fast response also isn’t helped by inaccurate information. When a plane hits the first tower, it’s said that a small civil aircraft hit it. And then NORAD are told that American Airlines 11 is heading for Washington when it’s actually hit the World Trade Centre. Yes technology is better these days, but we still don’t live in a world where we have accurate information available at our fingertips the very second it happens. And it’s galling to know that even the government has to get its updates from CNN.

A chilling moment that occurs in the film is when air traffic control are trying to communicate with American Airlines 11. The plane is over New York and they’re desperately trying to talk to the pilot. But then the plane disappears off the screen. But even though we know it’s hit the tower you can still understand the confusion. Even though the flight has disappeared, who can imagine such a thing?

Things only start to become clear when the second plane nears Manhattan. And then it’s too late. People watching the smoking tower see the second plane crash into the other building. The attack is almost over before people can understand what’s going on.

And the only reason that the fourth plane didn’t hit the Capitol Building is because United 93 was delayed. Sure some imbeciles can question why the passengers of that flight didn’t take the plane sooner, but they didn’t know what was going on. When you don’t know what’s going on, you’re powerless. But once they hear about the other flights, they decide to act. And the one bright spot in that miserable day is that these passengers fought back and prevented further loss of life.

But I really can’t overstress how great this film is. Aside from the slightly comic cowardly German, it doesn’t put a foot wrong. There are no attempts to demonise. There are no attempts to play for false emotion. You’re just dropped in this hellish situation and expected to deal with it. It just feels real.

And very often it feels painfully real. The build-up constantly had me on edge. The tension is palpable. And then there’s the heartbreak of people phoning home and the desperation of the attack on the cockpit. Paul Greengrass has fashioned a masterpiece here. He’s made a film that is visceral and heartbreaking and that makes no concessions to the audience. It’s one of the greatest films of the last few years.

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