April 28, 2006,
Much ink has already been spilled over United 93, and there will surely be more in the coming days. The nature of the film is such that few pundits will be able to resist comment, each raising the obvious questions and answering them as variations on a few themes: Is it too soon? What will high box-office numbers signify? Low ones? Are the terrorist portrayed as men or as monsters? Are the passengers of United 93 symbols of courage, or were they merely acting on the animalistic instinct to preserve one's life?
What will largely be lost will be a cogent assessment of the film itself: of its extraordinary, brutal power as well as the incredible sense of reality it captures. It is not a political film, at least not in the sense the punditry will make it out to be. It does not strive to make a point. It does not take sides. It does not even try to develop characters, or to create an arc to the story. It is a movie that just is. And that is what makes its portrayal of September 11 so fitting: It treats the events of the day not as fiction, but as reality. It will be a shame if this film becomes politicized to the point of distraction.
Inlaid in many columns will be notes regarding the novel aspects of the film that the families of the United 93 victims were all supportive of the project; that the actors were segregated during shooting so that terrorists and non-terrorists did not interact. These are certainly interesting, but they are also superfluous: The movie is so well-crafted that you will neither notice these minor elements, nor give much thought to anything save the action often mundane, workaday shots of ordinary life on the screen.
United 93 is the rare film in which every element from steady-cam shots to scene cuts to score contributes to the overall effect. And they do so in ways that are not as much noticed as felt on a visceral level. It is not powerful: It is overpowering. Its verisimilitude makes it impossible to do anything except watch the action unfold on screen, and let the emotions it elicits pound you over and over again. This is of course a fitting parallel to September 11 itself: the most ordinary of days that became the most extraordinary.
United 93 is, however, overpowering in a way that will be very different for every individual, which is why the prospect of its becoming a bludgeon for the chattering class is dismaying, to say the least. Some things cannot adequately be described by words, but must instead be felt or seen firsthand without the prepackaged ideological bent. Too much political talk will cheapen the film's achievements, and make it out to be something it is not.
No reviewer is going to determine what this movie means or does not mean to you. To decide whether it is in fact too soon, whether it commodifies a tragedy, or whether it is a brilliant and accurate glimpse into the events of that day. Perhaps it will be cathartic. Perhaps it will not. Therein is the elegance of this film: United 93 is an intensely personal movie. It will be different for everyone. Pundits who tell you otherwise are lying.
In order to cope, we cannot live everyday in the presence of our worst moments, those memories that tear at the very fabric of our souls. September 11 is one of those memories: In some respects it seems so distant, yet in others it is only yesterday. It is hard to delve deep enough to recall the horrors most of us felt as the tragedy unfolded. United 93 draws those emotions out, and it does so with a reserved modesty. Again, whether this is a good or bad thing is a determination you should make for yourself.
Alston B. Ramsay is an associate editor at National Review.