The Black Box of ‘United 93’?: Film director ponders whether 4/28 is too soon for a film about 9/11

Inevitably, it is the ineffable, unutterable urgency of 9/11 that calls out for conversation now.

From the battle cry of "Let's roll" to the fatigued tears of "Let's talk," "United 93" director Paul Greengrass has his ear to the ground and his audience in the air as he's about to pry open the blighted black box of the unspeakable on Friday, when his film about the hijacked horror story opens wide.

It's time for conversation, says the director of such acclaimed documentaries as the Irish IRA-themed "Bloody Sunday" as his focus now shifts to the terrorism of that still mortifying Monday.

But talk has led to questioning the topic, too. And one such question is without easy answer:

Has "United 93" been cleared for takeoff too soon?

Clearly, this is not just a movie. Indeed, this nonfantasy of a flight is filled with a high quixotic quotient; it is a jet-propelled jumble of angst that jettisons rhyme and reason for the visceral free-fall in space that accompanied all the horrors of the unlucky lottery lunacy that was 9/11.

It is a painful lowly memory enlarged to 20 feet high that mobs the senses and sends the recollections of an out-of-control catastrophe spinning into spatial anxiety.

Enacting what can only be an imagined account of the unimaginable horror that day in which four planes were swept off course in the sky by terrorists and sent crashing to earth, is a film that not so much opens on screen as explodes the senses.

With its nominally no-name cast, this no-nonsense bifurcated examination of horror/heroics is a dizzying, spiraling movie that screams into the heart on a cloud of accumulated grief.

It is a thrill ride in which the thrills are gone, but the horrors keep playing on long after the coaster has rolled to a conclusion.

If there is a conclusion …

Greengrass concludes that now is the right time to shift the thematic time machine into reverse, thrusting it into the past. At the controls of propriety? The families of the 40 passengers and crew whose crash-landing in Shanksville, Pa., five years ago still seems numbing, claims the director/writer/producer, who has been in constant conversation with them all. "They are the people who can rightfully answer" whether this is the right time or not.

One need not be a physicist to know that time is relative: "They said it was not too soon; they said it was high time – [they said], what took you so long?"

For those who long to remain forever rooted on 9/10, 2001, "United 93" truly is the wings of man, as transporting a film as it can be.

Ironically, by the time the delayed United 93 was in the air, the horrors of New York and Washington, D.C., were history. By then, "9/11 was over," recalls Greengrass. "They," the United 93 passengers, "were the first people in our post 9/11 world."

It's our world and unwelcome to it? "It was the most important event that occurred in our lifetime," he says of that fateful fatal day five years ago.

"It drives all our politics; it defines the nature of our world and our children's world."

An All-Defining Catastrophe

And for those who question why Greengrass has a right to whisper of the horrors in their children's ears, why a filmmaker has the right to make it all so tangible, he retorts that one consider the frame of reference.

"No one says it shouldn't be reported on CNN," he avers.

But this is … Hollywood.

And yet it isn't, he counters: "This is not a big-budget film with stars; this is not being done for the money."

His vision is on the money – accurate, poignant, committed to piecing together transcripts and recollections of talk in dialing up such memorable and meaningful dialogue.

Some times reality speaks for itself. "Hollywood has many visions; one is to entertain, another is to make important films about why we are living."

Fasten your seat belt, it's more than a bumpy ride: The movie's gravitational pull – depictions of the plane gyrating and descending into darkness -is as forceful as the hands of time reaching into the viewer's body and yanking him right on-set. The film's hand-held cameras take viewers along for the ride, one which Disney will, guaranteed, never try to reconstruct for Fantasyland.

Right from the heart or to the gut? "United 93," without artistic disparagement, is more an air-sickness bag of a movie than a popcorn bag. As on-screen air controllers air out their frustration of losing control of one plane after another – termed "targets" – that disappear off radar, an audience's heart not so much leaps out as it is ejected with each exclamation of hopelessness.

"United 93," divided its audience? Certainly, keeping history current and relatable is admirable, but when does the past seem too close to the current to assure future impact?

Is this film, just five years after the tragedy at Shanksville, benignly topical or uncalled for? Ultimately, is "United 93" necessary?

Tellingly, it's telemovie format is misshapen by actual events. This is no trinket proffered for ratings week, but a horror movie of the worst kind – it's real.

But if anyone is to get the mileage plus out of this experience, it is the gifted Greengrass, who remembers well watching the day's horrors unfold as he was "in the cutting room finishing 'Bloody Sunday.' "

If he had any doubt whether he should make a film about that day, they were dispelled in shards by the echoes of shrapnel from the subsequent London Underground bombing. "I knew for sure I would make it then."

That was then, this is now … and as the first filmmaker to deal with the topic in a feature film – United 93 has been broached on cable TV – isn't Greengrass straying far from the green, green, grass of home, where a veneer of fiction – such as the one he could count on for "The Bourne Supremacy," which he directed – can protect him from factual criticism?

"Any film at any time about 9/11 will be scrutinized carefully," he says. "I believe we've made the film in the right way."

It's not all play acting – some of the actors play themselves, including the incredible Ben Sliney, who on that harrowing and horrible day, began his first day on the job as head of the air command center in Herndon, Va.

He had, as is obvious in the film, built-in-radar for the role.

"It is not acting," says Greengrass of Sliney's high-stakes realization on screen of what is happening. "The memory is so burned into his mind."

It is a filmic ring of fire that encircles the audience, too. Fighting that fire requires an extreme extinguisher that has some political leaders blowing smoke, others unable to see beyond the fumes.

But the heat is intense: Watching "United 93" at the theater can cause an emotional embolism, calling for the same caution and advice that recent American forays into foreign policy, seem, ironically, to have ignored: Enter at your own risk.

Greengrass has risked much here, but is content he has fared well by the families. Without question, the ultimate question raised by the film – and the significance of its Shanksville redemption – is, says the director, "How do we face up to the Jihadist hijacking of Islam?

"There are no easy answers," he replies. "But we've got to find the answers."



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