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Friday, Aug. 18, 2006

American heroes united; propaganda's the result

The first of the 9/11 movies to come out of the gate, "United 93" presents this critic with a dilemma. It's an intense, gripping, realistic look at the so-called "fourth plane" hijacked by al-Qaida in 2001, which crashed in Pennsylvania after the passengers tried to storm the cockpit, killing all on board.

United 93 Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Passengers decide it's time for action in "United 93" (c) 2006 UNIVERSAL PICTURES INTERNATIONAL

Director: Paul Greengrass
Running time: 91 minutes
Language: English, Arabic
Now showing (Aug. 18, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Nevertheless, this is a hard film to recommend, for a number of reasons. Such as? Well, there's the obvious one, in that it's rather poor taste to exploit such a recent tragedy as public "entertainment." The filmmakers have largely deflected that criticism, though, by offering a percentage of profits to 9/11-related charities and enlisting the endorsement of many who lost loved ones on the hijacked flight.

A bigger question may be whether anyone actually wants to sit through "United 93," which is, in the end, a document of a massacre, and about as enjoyable as a punch in the gut. Why would any person choose to put themselves through such an experience? For horror film fright? One hopes not; the reality of the events portrayed makes that a bit too snuff. Then, to learn something one didn't already know about the events of Sept. 11, 2001?

That's the crux of the matter right there, and I'm sorry to say that "United 93" offers no new insight into the hijacking. Director Paul Greengrass takes a narrow, faux-documentary look at the events of that day, starting with the hijackers waking up in their hotel rooms and reading the Quran, and ending with a sharp cut to black as the plane slams into the ground. It's sole raison d'etre is to serve as a document of panic.

And, one might add, to work as a rallying cry for war. "United 93" is nothing if not a 21st century "Alamo," showing brave Americans going down in a doomed last stand. When the credits roll and the lights come up, the only thing you leave the theater with is a thirst for vengeance, the desire to go out and kill some Arabs.

Is that a reason to go see this film? According to most of America's rightwing media pundits, the answer is "yes." But their reasoning is devious: They want to keep the public's blood boiling to somehow sustain support for their poster-boy president's floundering war in Iraq, and they continue to deliberately blur the lines between Saddam Hussein's secular regime and the Islamo-fascism of al-Qaida. The fact that these people have been the most enthusiastic supporters of this film is hardly a sign of its success in exploring its topic.

Now, I have no doubt that the al-Qaida hijackers were fanatics of the worst kind, cruel and merciless men. But to show us only that and nothing more gives us no reason for their actions, and means we understand nothing about this very political act. This dovetails perfectly with President George W. Bush's conviction that the Middle East is a veritable Mordor spewing evildoers from its fiery depths. It also reinforces the image of America as innocent victim -- which the passengers of United 93 certainly were -- but ignores how the "land of the free" has consistently supported dictators in Iran, in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt, in Pakistan, even in Iraq, and the consequences that this has wrought.

Director Paul Greengrass would no doubt defend himself by saying his context was to look only at the events of that one day, 9/11. I would charge, however, that looking at those events without perspective is indeed a very political context, the very same one that Bush-Cheney-Rummy want the rest of the world to swallow.

Greengrass has previously directed "Bloody Sunday," a film about the 1972 massacre in Northern Ireland, which "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James once singled out for me as a prime offender in blurring the line between documentary and fiction. The man certainly knows how to create the illusion of reality: The passengers on his plane don't look like Hollywood extras, they look like ordinary people. The air traffic controllers on the ground are largely played by people who were in those positions on 9/11. When the plane lurches and dives, as the hijacker at the controls tries to topple the passengers pounding their way to the cockpit, you can feel your stomach rising to your throat. And yet all the technique in the world is meaningless if you have nothing to say.

Bottom line: will you walk out of this film feeling glad you saw it? Answer: a definite "no."

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