April 28, 2006,
Into a culture that has difficulty acknowledging the frank evil of our enemies and creating heroes whom we all can admire comes the extraordinary film United 93. It is the unvarnished story of the morning of Sept. 11 and the struggle that ultimately drove hijacked Flight 93 into the ground in Shanksville, Pa., at 580 mph.
United 93 adds no feel-good touches to its narrative, and within the bounds of taste (we see no bodies falling from the towers, for instance) is unsparing in relaying the awful reality of that day. That any controversy at all has adhered to the film its promotional trailer was pulled from one Manhattan theater and prompted complaints at others is as "disturbing" as some squeamish moviegoers have said the United 93 preview was.
"Disturbing" is an odd complaint to make against such a movie. On Sept. 11, a group of young fanatical men caught us collectively napping; turned our high technology against us by hijacking our jetliners; stabbed crew and passengers aboard those planes; and plowed them into prominent symbols of our commerce and power in the most spectacularly savage terrorist attack the world has ever seen.
By any definition, that is disturbing. A movie about those events that doesn't create a pit of fear, anger and grief in your stomach is either poorly executed or detached from reality. United 93 is neither. Some people will naturally prefer lighter fare at the multiplex, but the resistance in our culture to grappling frontally with that day news outlets have an informal ban on showing the plane striking the World Trade Center's south tower has a whiff of escapism. To paraphrase the slogan from the horror movie The Fly, the message of Sept. 11 is, "Be disturbed, be very disturbed." We turn from it at our peril.
A related complaint against United 93 is that it is "too soon" for the movie. But we are headed toward the fifth anniversary of the attacks. We could be losing a major battle in the War on Terror in Iraq and seeing a flagging of resolve in the war generally, yet some people think we can't yet be reminded what started the whole thing: It's never too early to be defeated, but always too soon to recall the brutality of our attackers.
Memory is a key element of national identity, and flinching from a full and true memory of 9/11 risks distorting ours. Of course, we remember the victims. But it is just as important to remember the perpetrators and their nature. In the wake of Sept. 11, the makers of the movie The Sum of All Fears famously changed the film's terrorists from Muslims to white supremacists. There is obviously no such airbrushing in United 93. The film opens with the sound of the Muslim prayers of the hijackers in Arabic, as the camera pans over the streets of Manhattan. It's hard to get more stark, or chilling, than that.
It's also essential that we remember ourselves not just as victims on that day remember not just what was sad, but what was inspiring. The passengers of Flight 93 were the first Americans to fight back. United 93 wisely avoids focusing too exclusively on any of the individual passengers. Instead, they are presented as an ensemble exemplifying many of the virtues of the American character: a great improvisational intelligence, as they quickly understand and cope with the radically new, horrifying circumstances they are presented with; an extraordinary civic facility, demonstrated by their ability to formulate rapidly a plan of action among themselves; and a fierceness when provoked. In preparation for the assault on the terrorists, one passenger tells a flight attendant: "Get every weapon you can find. We need weapons."
The heroism of those passengers is now forever part of our story as a nation. It's not too soon for a major Hollywood film that portrays it brilliantly. It's about time.