United 93

Ten Things I Hate About You
By Jeff Reichert

United 93
Dir. Paul Greengrass, U.S., Universal

Since Paul Greengrass decided to make a crude, mechanistic schematic out of the events of 9/11 and the crash of United 93 rather than a full-bodied film with some small shred of humanity, it seemed most appropriate to build a response around a list rather than a complete review. Given that we’re dealing with a filmmaker whose work reveals a consciousness wholly unable to devote its attention to anything (shots, faces, ideas) for more than split seconds, why waste words? Paul, this one’s for you.

1. Paul Greengrass is one of our most technically gifted filmmakers working, but simultaneously one of our most useless. If I could have checked my intellect at the door, United 93 might have been one of the most striking films of the year. Viciously and crudely effective, I can’t say I wasn’t on edge at points, and the film does manage to maintain a sense of surging forward momentum. That is, at least, until it stops cutting between various air traffic control centers and settles down into the hyper-kinetic, incoherent, and interminably boring best-guess depiction of Flight 93’s last moments. But all of this, to what end?

2. In the name of realism, United 93 gives realism a bad name. Greengrass’s oeuvre has been defined thus far by its verité styling, and his training as a documentary filmmaker is writ large over his films. That said, shouldn’t he know better than to present cheap facsimiles of reality as the thing itself? Shouldn’t a filmmaker of conscience want to provide some kind of critical distance—“look, this is a re-presentation”—rather than striving so energetically to plunge us directly into the heart of a falsehood? Especially in dealing with matters of national tragedy, this seems as though it might have been an appropriate course.

3. But, in the name of realism, United 93 has done its homework, and isn’t afraid to let us know, employing as many of the “real” people involved in tracking the planes on that fateful day, reconstructing “actual” phone conversations made from the flight, and employing a cast of unknown actors rather than recognizable faces. In some ways, it is honorable that Greengrass completed mounds of research rather than hiring Akiva Goldman or Milo Addica to hack a melodrama from real events. But, these worthwhile efforts at turning oral histories into visual representations become all the more detestable for the ends they’re enslaved to.

4. We don’t really know what transpired during Flight 93’s last moments, and never will, but by presenting a priori the immense fact assemblage undertaken for this project, Greengrass throws the weight of truth behind his—decidedly heroic—interpretation. A coordinated group of passengers killing two of the hijackers and storming the cockpit doesn’t seem impossible by any means, but we just don’t know if this is true, and never can. Why not present alternate versions, or acknowledge the risks inherent in trying to put images to the “what really happeneds” of the world?

5. Instead, Greengrass has provided the families of those who died, America, and the world with a memorial carved out of bullshit. Architecture firm KBAS’s design for the Pentagon memorial stands in stark contrast, offering a space for reflection and contemplation—a space that’s both humble and humbling. Humility doesn’t enter into Greengrass’s cinematic vocabulary; he’d rather tweak our nerves and batter us into submissive unquestioning drones. In truth, it’s only through such tactics that a project like this can even stand a chance of survival.

6. But, batter us he does, choosing a rhetorical style not far from that of the conservative punditry who’ve gone out of their way to praise the film. In the face of the utter catastrophe that is the Conservative movement, thank you, Paul, for tossing the blowhards a life preserver wrapped in John Powell’s “subtly patriotic” score.

7. If this is “in memory” of those who died on that fateful day, why don’t we learn anything about anyone who died? Greengrass might as well have used monkey puppets instead of actors. Sure, reality might dictate that formal introductions and pleasantries might not be particularly common in a hijacking scenario, thus necessitating the lack of real characters, but there’s a host of other tactics that could have been employed (direct address, interviews with families) to provide a fuller, more appropriate experience. Oh wait, we’re dealing in “reality” here, so any kind of artifice is off limits, right?

8. Why again did this have to be framed as an action movie? I watched Mission Impossible: 3 immediately after United 93, and it was remarkable how easily certain segments of one could have been picked up and dropped into the other. There is barely a hint of true specificity to 9/11 in Greengrass’s film, just cliché draped in the unassailable tragic reality of the day.

9. United 93 has offered film critics the chance to indulge in their worst instincts. In writing rave reviews where the film is dubbed “brave” and “tough,” these writers haven’t reckoned with Greengrass’s lies so much as taken the opportunity to assign star ratings to their own patriotism and feelings towards 9/11. Thank god for Frank Rich, one of the few truth-tellers still writing for a major publication, whose recent New York Times column slices straight through this heaping pile of garbage and calls United 93 for what it is: rank exploitation.

10. Regardless of the relative success of United 93 (initial grosses suggest folks aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to relive 9/11 in super-duper realism), its director will still continue making films. Next up, unsurprisingly, another entry in the Bourne series. After that, Greengrass will bring his “singular” style to bear on the Vietnam War. Thanks for all you do (to historical memory), Paul.