United 93 by Esther Pérez

The New American Heroes
United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)
By Esther Pérez

The film United 93 is, according to its own director Paul Greengrass, a “meticulous re-enactment of events” surrounding the last hours of the flight that gives the movie its title. The United 93 was the last aircraft to be involved in the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the one whose highjackers failed to crash into the Capitol building in Washington D.C. The film is presented and intended to be received as a piece of reality, as the true and real thing. In fact, its verisimilitude is one of its achievements - and obsessions - throughout, and many of its formal and content-based elements appear to have been carefully chosen to achieve the strong sense of realism necessary to equate the film content with Truth. Thus, United 93 takes audiences through the events of 9/11 as they unfolded in real time. Camera movement is also crucial in this respect: the story is seen from beginning to end through the lens of constantly moving handheld cameras. These camera movements provide the film with a touch of immediacy and an almost documentary-like quality which is very appropriate for the purpose of the film – Greengrass’s expertise as a documentary writer and director is undeniably present here. The choice of actors also seems meaningful and relates to the intended realistic mode of the film: some of them are not professional actors, but people who directly experienced 9/11 and play themselves in the film. The rest of the cast is not made up of attractive stars either, but of rather unknown actors and actresses who could be taken for average (mainly white) American women and men; young, middle aged and older individuals, slim and big, nice looking and not so nice looking citizens; common people like the ones who were on the plane that tragic 11 September, and among the members of the Civilian Air Traffic Controllers Centre and Military Command Centres – the conspicuous predominance of white characters in these last two settings and the absence of certain ethnic minorities (e.g. Hispanics) is also meaningful and telling. Similarly, actions and conversations between the crew members and the passengers occurring before the actual highjacking takes place are often trivial and attempt to reproduce daily-life dialogues.

Even the terrorists are apparently represented with nuances and somehow ‘realistically’ – though the film does not make allusions to the motivations behind their dreadful actions besides their obvious religious fanaticism. These fundamentalist Muslims are shown as fanatic killers – the film stresses their violence and lack of empathy towards their other, as they gratuitously murder some of the passengers and cabin members cowardly, from behind, before the crash occurs. Yet, United 93 also considers their more ‘human’ side: far from behaving like robots, they show nervousness, fear, hesitation, and even some lack of coordination in their plans; their faces and body movements reveal the tension they might have experienced as they were well aware of their imminent kamikaze death – although they see it as “martyrdom” . In this sense, United 93  could be praised because, apparently, it does not offer too obvious or cheesy displays of sentimentalism, nor does it deploy “Americanness” excessively or in a banal way. It does, however, undeniably and perhaps also inevitably, rely on and appeal to emotions – potentially powerful and politically dangerous weapons indeed. The numerous heart-touching comments made by the crew and the passengers about their families (and especially about their children) first appear well before the actual highjacking begins and should be read in this light. These allusions textually vilify even more those fanatics who are just about to enlarge the States´ list of orphans, widows and widowers. Western audiences’ identification with/sympathy towards the passengers and the crew members increase as the film withdraws the English translation for some of the highjackers’ sentences in Arab. This happens especially in particularly climactic moments, when audiences are metaphorically left unprotected before the highjackers and are called to experience some of the anxiety undergone by passengers and cabin crew members, as they do not understand the highjackers and cannot exactly know what is going on.

This leads the argument towards an aspect of the film which is crucial, but perhaps not conspicuous: the fact that the American imprint in United 93 is present throughout, even if more subtly and “aseptically” than usual. This film, intended to be seen in the States and abroad, and likely to become very well-known world-wide, is conceived as a statement of facts and as a declaration of intentions. It is an understandable attempt to reinforce Americans’ damaged ego and to reassert and partly recreate (mainly white) national identity in the States post 9/11. This is a film about American citizens’ heroism. Like in older versions, but with a new emphasis on the group and on collective action, rather than on “superhuman” individuals and individual activity, such identity emphasises the bravery of American average men (and women) and their heroic behaviour when facing enemies, adversity and danger – surely it is no coincidence that the main focus of the film is the flight United 93, the one whose passengers and crew members resisted and fought the highjackers and, according to official sources, prevented them from crashing the plane into the Capitol building, a symbol of the United States’ democracy, power and supremacy in the world. The final shot shows the highjackers and some passengers in the captain’s cabin as the latter unsuccessfully fight to get control over the control panel. The scene is stopped just before the plane hits the floor, thus saving audiences from gratuitous images of explosions and fire. Probably conceived to be respectful towards the victims and their families, this ending should also be related to the film’s allegoric intention to represent the States’ temporary wounds, its eventual symbolic death being unthinkable; the United States, filled with heroes and heroines, will be soon reborn from its ashes, the film seems to suggest. The very final scenes of United 93 offer no image, but show some written texts. Again, these relate to the film’s continuous attempt to offer the real thing, the truth: they present very exact information and details about the events that appear to have happened just after the United 93 crashed. Yet, these scenes do not seem entirely necessary to the story, as the main message of the film (the country’s determination to face and defeat its enemy) is already clear. Somehow out of place (perhaps intentionally out of place?) seems the scene in which spectators are informed about the fact that the army got permission to attack the aircraft after it had already crashed. Perhaps such a statement will feed rather than appease the voices of those who support conspiracy theories, for they may argue that excusatio non petita….


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