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United 93′ raises questions about film, history

Brian Doxtader | Monday, April 24, 2006

Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” opens next weekend, pre-empting other 9/11 themed films like Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.” The film is projected to perform well both critically and commercially, as it has been received positively in pre-release screenings.

“United 93” is particularly notable because it is the first major fictional film based on the events of 9/11. Prior media coverage was primarily documentary in nature, including slanted non-fiction like Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

From “Titanic” to “Schindler’s List” to Greengrass’ own “Bloody Sunday,” historical tragedies are a cinematic staple. Yet never has the event been as close to the American people as 9/11, and perhaps more importantly, 9/11 was a recent event. Unlike most films based on historical events, “United 93” arrives less than half a decade from the tragedy itself. This raises an important question: is it too soon? “United 93” lacks the advantage of time and history given to most cinematic depictions of real-life events.

The movie’s official Web site (www.united93movie.com) claims that, “the time has come for contemporary cinema’s leading filmmakers to dramatically investigate the events of [9/11].” But is it truly time for such an investigation? Is five years enough? There are those for whom the event is still a very real and very fresh experience, and in light of America’s continued involvement in the Middle East, the consequences of the event are still left unresolved.

The other important question is this: what are the filmmakers trying to achieve? The shock of the tragedy of 9/11 gave way to unified heroism and unbridled patriotism. Greengrass, in the “Director’s Statement” on the official Web site, speaks of the “courage and endurance” of the men and women involved in 9/11 – is “United 93” thus a film about heroes, or is it, as the trailers lead us to believe, about ordinary people? The easy answer, of course, is that it’s both – a film about ordinary people who became heroes.

Such a depiction is in and of itself extraordinary, especially since the official Web site describes the flight as “one of the most heroic legacies of [incomprehensible tragedy].” Such a statement raises another question: if the tragedy of 9/11 is still incomprehensible, if its meaning has not been sorted through by time and understanding, is it really appropriate for filmmakers to be depicting such events?

Some may feel uneasy due to the fact that the media seems to have cashed in so quickly on this tragic event. “United 93” is a feature film with a relatively small, but not unsubstantial budget (15 million dollars). It will undoubtedly make a lot of money in its theatrical release, and then in DVD sales.

What was so striking about the media reaction to 9/11 was the respect and taste Hollywood showed – films and television programs were delayed or had the Twin Towers digitally removed. For instance, a “Spider-Man” trailer featuring the World Trade Center was pulled from theaters.

Yet here we are some five years later, and between Stone’s film and Greengrass’ film, it seems that Hollywood has returned to the tragedy with full gusto. Is it appropriate? Is it respectful? The quality and depictions of the films themselves will contribute much to the perception of Hollywood’s 9/11, but only time will tell. And though Hollywood may believe the time is now, it remains to be seen if the time is right.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. The Scene staff contributed to this article.