Tuesday, January 02, 2007

United 93

I saw United 93 last night and was very impressed. It involves you in a situation that is initially banal and then increasingly desperate and from which there is no escape and, because it indulges in none of the standard rhetoric of heroics or victimisation, is all the more effective.

One of the qualities it was praised for was that it was 'apolitical'. While I am not one of those who mount my high horse to proclaim that eveything is political (far from it), it is difficult to see how a film dealing with 911 could be apolitical, or indeed why it should be. And this film is not.

It only departs from the rigour of its 'in the moment' method once. Immediately after the opening scene showing one of the terrorists praying and then being interrupted, the camera takes flight over the skyline of Boston with the prayer continuing as voiceover. You need only read that flat description of mine to understand the impact of the sequence - the director, Paul Greengrass, is underlining the fact that the act these men were about to commit is grounded in and sanctioned by their religion (whether rightfully or wrongly is another point). Their prayers bookend the story.

Again, as the film reaches its climax and the passengers ready themselves to attack, several of them intone the Lord's prayer just as, opposite them and with equeal intensity, the terrorists mutter invocations to Allah - a more economical and back-to-basics means of signalling the clash of civilisations, I cannot conceive.

There is one other moment I would point to where the story broadens its field for a moment and makes a political point. Before take-off, the co-pilot goes down to the tarmac to check on the re-fuelling, to make sure that they'll have enough for the journey. We see the fuel gushing behind perspex and into the wings and linger on the counter (625.5 gallons and counting) - and cannot but reflect on the nationality of most of the terrorists, of the source of their revenue and where that revenue originates.

A final point, and possibly the most overtly political of all, at least in terms of immediate policy - the German passenger, the appeaser, the one who must be suppressed as the other passengers begin their revolt. This was the only moment in which I thought, 'A bit crude that bit'. Obviously, if we think of the political build-up to the Iraq War, such an approach would be justified. It's just that this film otherwise avoids that sort of rhetoric - it doesn't have characters playing hero, second-fiddle, comic, love interest - characters don't 'represent' any group. When the flight begins, they are wrapped up entirely in personal concerns. As the film ends, they are reacting to a threat from which there is no escape. And there is no hope of rescue. During the film, they don't even 'represent' the United States - it's not shot like that. But then there's this German who stands in for European pusillanimity.

Don't get me wrong. I think it was right to present and quash the appeasement approach; it's just that I think it should have been done 'from within'. Matching it up with a German is an unnecessary distraction and also lets in the unworthy question of why no-one on the other three planes rebelled. Were there too many Germans?

Aside from that quibble, I think United 93 is a superb film which, quite unexpectedly, does justice to its subject.

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