Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Thoughts on Flight 93

I watched United 93 last night with cpratt. I think I liked it better than he did. It's hard to make a story arc interesting when we all know where it will end and are also looking for the faithful reproduction of various details. But I think the film did a pretty good job, particularly with the various command center scenes, which were edited for suspense.

As cpratt notes in his own entry, I told him right afterwards that the film was interesting from a cinematic standpoint because the opening shots align us with the future hijackers. We see them getting ready for their mission, nervous and intense, just as we prepare for our own, which is to make it through the film. The difference between the hijackers and everyone else is that they know what's going to happen. Because we also know, the analogy is clear. For much of the film, they sit anxiously in their first class seats, just as we sit anxiously in our similarly proportioned movie theater seats.

It's not until they finally go into action that we are consistently pulled in another direction. Once the passengers begin to plan their revolt, our identification starts to shift away from the hijackers. But by that point United 93 is almost over. And even then, the film still encourages us to feel some sympathy for the most conflicted Al Qaeda operative, the one who takes over the plane after the pilot and co-pilot are killed. Those who appear hapless are shown to be the victims of bad information and an even worse chain of command. It's significant that the film is dedicated to everyone who died on that day, not just Americans. Perhaps this is a reflection of the filmmakers' desire to have a product that will be marketable outside of the United States. Or maybe they simply wished to establish critical distance from the way the Bush Administration has exploited the event. Either way, the film's studied neutrality is surprising.

I wasn't offended by it, though I can see how someone with a personal stake in the story easily could be. Indeed, I had been expecting the film to be pretty obviously biased against the hijackers and figured I'd be offended on that basis. It could be that the absence of that sort of offense canceled out my reservations about being encouraged to regard the hijackers, crew, and passengers alike as equally human. That's an odd sentence, I realize. Obviously they all were "equally human" in real life. But sometimes even the most contemplative people want to see their enemy dehumanized. When Chris and I nearly got into an altercation with the rude teenagers sitting in front of us, it made sense to me on an emotional level. That was early in the film, but we'd already prayed and shaved and dressed with the hijackers and must have felt the film's willingness to make them available for identification. It was almost like he and I needed to act out a taking of sides to counterbalance the film's nearly perverse balance.

Like the German film Downfall about the last days of Hitler's inner sanctum, which I wrote about here, United 93 is a fascinating film to think about. Indeed, the fact that the film doesn't particularly encourage us to think may be its most interesting quality. I was amazed to get back to my room last night and see that Chris had already composed an entry on it, because doing so required overcoming the film's resistance to the interpretive impulse. The film also intrigues me because of its documentary aspect. It's not often when that high a percentage of dialogue in a film is the sort that has already been made public. In a sense, anyone who had read the newspaper stories about the events of that day and poked around in the 9/11 Commission's report had already read the screenplay.

Of course, the fact that many of the people in the Redmond, Washington theater where we saw the film seemed to be teenagers out on dates raises the question of what they brought to the film. Was 9/11 a major watershed in their lives, as many of my undergraduates report it to have been? Or did they just want to see the latest hyped movie on Friday night? Trying to make sense of audience response to United 93 is no easy task. In essence, we are all being asked to become hijackers ourselves, not only because of the identification with them that the film elicits, but also because we bring the same knowledge into the theater that they brought onto that plane. We know what's going to happen. We know that everyone in the plane is going to die. And we even know that, to the extent that we identify with the people on that plane, we are going to end up suffering a metaphoric death ourselves. In other words, going to see the film is a kind of suicide mission. I suppose one could argue that the result is catharsis, of the sort that the audience is meant to experience when watching a tragedy. But I'm not even sure I felt that.

As I was heading east over the bridge on 520, trying to make sense of the film and my response to it, I realized I had tears in my eyes. I didn't when I was in the theater, however, And those tears felt curiously mechanical, like a physiological response to a stress too great to process. Maybe that's what United 93 is attempting to achieve. It may well be that the film turns out to be an allegory that only works in retrospect. We don't perceive its allegorical dimensions when watching it, but realize them later, as we look back on 9/11 through the window it provides, like those air traffic controllers in Newark airport who, after tracking one of the planes that hits the World Trade Centers with their scopes, belatedly realize that the answer to their question about its fate is staring them in the face like Edgar Allan Poe's purloined letter that hides in plain view.

The funny thing is that, like may people I've talked to, I already perceived the possibility of 9/11's allegorical potential right after learning what had happened. In fact, my first conscious thought about that day's events was that they would be turned into an allegory with lightning speed. And that's what I feared. Somehow I'd made the conclusion that Americans' allegorical response to the film would translate into a military response with world-changing consequences. "Fuck," I thought, "we're going to do something terrible."

I wonder whether my delayed emotional response to the film, which was of limited duration, might not provide a clue to the filmmakers' purpose. If we undo the initial allegorical response that drove us into the endlessness of the War on Terror and replace it with one of a different sort, maybe there's hope of breaking out of the destructive story arc in which we are presently trapped. That is, if we perceive Flight 93 as a film about what happens when we identify with terrorists, maybe we will be able to imagine another path besides self-destruction. Even as I was watching the last third of the film, I had the clear sense that the heroism of the passengers who led the revolt was being turned into something else. By the time we got to the revolt itself, the parallels between the scenes of the hijackers preparing for their day at the beginning of the film and the scenes of the passengers preparing to strike back were too difficult to ignore.

When the revolt finally comes, it turns out to be so confusing in its chaos that it feels more like a mass of undifferentiated aggression that a battle between good and evil. Indeed, the conclusion of the film reminded me more of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch than of one of the patriotic films where one's nationalism is confirmed. Indeed, the passengers' decision to act seems more existential than anything, a realization that they would rather do something than sit passively resigned to their fate. Like United 93, The Wild Bunch is structured according to the logic of the heist genre, but takes a turn into murkier narrative territory. In a way, both films are heist-disaster hybrids in which mere anarchy is loosed upon the world in spite or maybe even because of a struggle for control. Although my own response is bound to be idiosyncratic relative to the majority take on the film, I think it's possible that many moviegoers will at least come out of the film with the power to rethink their notions of command and control. If the plane's pilots are lying dead on the cabin floor and the nation's "pilots" are incommunicado, then it's up to us to take matters into our own hands.
Tags: film, history, politics

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