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Movie Review: United 93

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9/11 In The Goon-Shack

September 11th 2001 I'm sat in the smoking room of a psychiatric hospital listenin' to a fella telling me all about the time Judas Iscariot sucked him off, out back some ale-house couple hours west of Jerusalem. "He earned his 30 pieces that night," says he, "I'll tell you that for the price o' a builder's rawhide. And I'd have happily given him thrice as much again, had I been in any position to give him anything. As it happens, I was well skint."

I nod. "I dare say he'd have been a wild man for the willy, right enough."

"Oh, save us, he was shockin'," says he, "Swear to God, the nuts o' fifty men couldn't o' held the lust he had boilin' 'tween the thighs."

Round about, sulphur-mawed men and women sit muttering to themselves or growling at fag-ends or grinding great clods of theosophical cud atween teeth ragged and cragged and blackened and bent. In the center of the room, the Spice Girls sing about 2 becoming 1 from out a set of knackered speakers.

"Did he swallow, at all?" asks Garth, an old fella sat leafing through a month old broadsheet, pulling on a counterfeit Regal King Size.

"He done none o' that," says my companion, "And well he didn't. I dare say he'd have had no bother wi' thon noose, if'n he had've, for he'd o' been choked t'death there and then."

For a time I sit watching the smoke rising up and out the throats of those assembled, great clouds o' grey / black fugg jiggering and jaggering out past trembling lips, wreathing about dope-dulled skulls, drifting past eyes look like candles flick'rin dimly other side of upheld bed-sheets.

I watch that, and I watch also the woman in the corner, woman sat patting at her eyes with the end of a lipstick-stained sleeve, woman now and then mouthing the name of a husband she never met, of a son she never bore.

I watch her, and I watch also the skyway other side of the glass door, I watch that skyway as the fly bound in the yarn of the arachnid's arsehole watches said spindly-legged bastard fidgeting on the other end o' yon web. I watch that skyway as the fella lain in muck and shit and the blood o' his friends watches some faceless phantom through the lens of the rifle held afore him.

I watch that skyway with the stomach careering around my ribs and with the taste of a savage terror draped o'er my tongue as a shawl.

"Turn thon up, there," says Garth, wagging a yellowed finger at the radio. "Turn it up, what's that he's sayin'?"

From out the cracklin' fuzz of the airwaves, a woman announces that one of the World Trade Center towers has been struck by some manner of missile. A breathless fella talking via a mobile phone half-connection stutters and stammers and says about it just streaked across the sky, whatever it was, just careered o'er the heavens like thon plague o' liquid night Yahweh sent skiting o'er the stones of Egypt.

From out the sky, it came.

I turn away from the glass-door, and from that terrifying, infinite spread.

In the TV room, a half-dozen patients are sat on their knees front the screen, with the flames and the fumes and the screaming and the roaring and the rubble and the ruin lashing at the gloom.

"They interrupted Trisha,” says a young lass with a black eye. "And wasn't it goin' to be shown who the father o' the wain was, and me waiting three days to find out."

The newscaster squirming in a tiny box bottom right of the screen, he's saying about it was an airplane, it turns out, an airplane flung like a dart from out the blue into the side of that building. They're playing with the possibility that it could've been intentional, but by who and for what reason they're not at all keen on hypothesizing at this stage.

Couple nurses arrive at the door with the arms folded and the heads shaking. "Isn't it wild altogether?" says one, and the other, he sucks the air through his teeth and says "Break your heart, wouldn't it? And me and the wife with the flight booked for a month's time, sure it'd put you off ever rising so much as a foot off of the kerbstones, wouldn't it not?"

The second plane hits the second tower in a 'ruption of red and orange and black, the screen wobbling, the gasps and the cries and the "Holy shit", the lot of us sat there with the yaps agape and the eyebrows twitching and back of the brains gnawed rotten by one thought thunk in unison; "Dear Christ, I hope they don't attack this hospital."

Harry, an old auctioneer from a town few miles removed from Antrim, he stands up with a great snarl and, with arms flailing about him, he says "Didn't I tell you, and did youse listen? You listened none, and what now? Cities attacked on the TV screens there, and me preachin' war day and night. You'll listen now, heth you will, you'll want t'be hearing everything Harry has to say about the trenches and the mushroom clouds o'er Dublin."

Harry, he's riddled with paranoia and schizophrenia, but he's saying nothing the rest of us aren't thinking. It's war. We're buggered.

"Will we be drafted, d'you think?" I'm asking Janet in the smoke room later that evening. "Look at me, how can I shoot a gun? By god I can barely blow a load 'gainst the porcelain without needing to be lain in a darkened room for a fortnight with the shame and the guilt risen like boils on my back, how can I fire an AK?"

"If'n they're draftin' it'll not be out the nut-house," she says, but Harry, sat across the way there, fiddling with a rolling machine, he's not so sure.

"Suppose, now," says he, "You've got a load of healthy young men and women well trained and educated and fit as Samson's nut-sack. Suppose you've also got a bunch o' cuckoos in the wards there jigglin' like tuning forks off of wheel trims. Who's the first you send, who's the ones you fling in blind to test the place? It's not the elite, I tell you that. It's the goons, is who, for by Jesus it's better to loose a man already lost as loose one o' the able."

"That's a load o' arse," says Janet, putting a hand on my arm, "Don't listen to him."

"And anyway," she adds, quoting Morrissey afore he got time to think of it, "They attacked America. America is not the world. America's not County Londonderry."

She says this and I'm thinking of the yellow M risen far side of the river, glaring o'er the town, casting shadows across the waters and the roads and the council estates.

("It's not actually an M," says a woman high on Winsor McKay, "It's arches.")

I'm thinking of the Starbucks set for splurging incandescent out the ashes of the old record store used to be perched on the corner by the newsagents.

I'm thinking how many times I've heard someone say "Totally" or "Random" this evening.

Sometimes around 10 in the PM I'm sat on the edge of the mattress yackin' to the nurse, I'm saying about what are the chances, pray tell, of them maybe flying thon planes into the hospital here?

"I wouldn't worry about that," says she, "For even if they did attack Northern Ireland, the chances of which are altogether very slim, even if they did, it wouldn't be the hospitals they'd go for."

"Well what, then?"

"Oh, I dunno, maybe the banks or Stormont Castle or something. But they won't, anyway."

"Can you promise that?" I'm saying, leaning forward, "Can you promise they won't, for I'd be a man would put a lot of stock in a promise, particularly one from out the mouth of a nurse."

"I can promise you it's very, very unlikely."

A friend of mine, lad suffers something savage from manic depression, he's been talking all evening about the folks who overpowered the hijackers on one of the planes, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Curiously, it's served to rouse him momentarily from out the insufferable blue's kept him pinned to the mattress like Christ to the cross for the past eight days. "Can you imagine?" he says. "Can you imagine the courage that must've taken? To bring that plane down? Can you imagine how beautiful those souls must be shining tonight?"

"No," I said. "No, I can't for a moment imagine it." And it's true. And I still can't.

I fall asleep listening to a fella scribbling plans for a shelter into an A4 file-block. "Underground," he's muttering, "Underground is where t'be, and them boys'll all be waddling about the streets for they're stupid, is what they are, but no, underground, that's where I'm headed."


"Does the sky still scare you?" asks my ladyfriend, Beautiful Ms Gillian, the pair of us headed towards the doors of the multiplex one evening in sunny July of 2006.

"Not so much," says I, "The pills and the doctors and the occupational therapy and what have you, afore long they siphon out any such deranged notions 'till all's left's a sort of mucus dangling from atween the thighs. I still step in it of occasion, but it's nothin' a wire-brush and a prosaic lather can't shift."

In order that there might be some canoodling and laughing and smooching of an hour or two, y'unnerstann, myself and herself, we figured we'd take ourselves down the street for to sit in the glow of a cinema screen for a couple hours. "You can pick the flick," said she, passing a newspaper my direction. "Whatever you want. Something fun."

"Something fun," said I, nodding. "That'll be the very thing for us."

"So this is about 9/11" she's saying as we dander towards the ticket booth.

"It's that if it's anything, and it'll be amazing, I can assure you. Paul Greengrass, he's by all accounts gone out his way to fashion the starkest, tightest, most harrowing hour and a half of plane-based drama a fella could e'er envision. And by God, if his Bloody Sunday wasn't the best 'Troubles' flick since In The Name Of The Father then I don't know what at all might be."

Beside the doors of Screen 3, a one-sheet's hung on the wall advertising Over The Hedge. "I laughed 'till I pished my mother's knickers," says the quote on the poster. Another assures us that "If'n it's a date film you're after, well by Luther's belly, this is the very article for you. Laughin' and canoodlin', that's what you'll be up to, if this is the picture you and the lady friend are viewing."

On the United 93 poster, the quotes are all stunned silences. Closest they get to a sentence is this one from, I believe, The Sun; "Death… loss… my eyes crawl o'er my face like dying flies…"

"It'll be fun," I reassure Ms Gillian as we're taking the seats.

An hour and a half later I'm staggering out the cinema like a hobo just pulled a bungalow out his urethra. "That was… I can't breathe. That was devastating… I'm devastated. My tongue's gone black, look, black as a miner's arse-crack. The best film of the year, and I know I said that about The Hills Have Eyes and also Brokeback Mountain and The Proposition but… no, film of the year, United 93 is."

Ms Gillian, she's not so sure, and less sure again about how much "fun" it might've been, the whole affair. "I was kind of in the mood for… y'know. A good time?"

"Hmm," says I, scratching the chin. "You were, and so was I, and yet there we sat choked and silent afore thirty minutes of men muttering confused commands to one another followed by an hour of people hurtling to their deaths."

The pair of us wander ashen-jawed to the car-park, contemplating the horrors scarred thon screen.

Still, we look like giddy dope-drunk cherubs bathed in God's lambent dribble in comparison to the poor bastards stumbled out The Da Vinci Code round about the same time. They claw at others ear-lobes and scratch confounded laments o'er others legs. "I thought I'd died half-way through" says one, "But then, didn't I come to my senses and see no, I hadn't died, and worse, there was near an hour and a half of the fuckin' thing left."

Similar sentiments mouthed by angry punters stompin' out The Wind That Shakes The Barley. "Has Ireland not suffered enough?" says one. "First the potatoes wither and rot 'side the turnip, then the civil war, then the troubles, and now, maybe worst of all, Ken Loach."

"Aye," nods the lass beside him. "It's more than any nation should be asked to tolerate."

"It'd be a braver man than me," says the young lad crawling on hands and knees behind them, "Could put up with a quarter of it."

Bravery. It's something United 93 has a man considering long into the following Thursday.


Early January 2007 and I'm watching United 93 for the fifth time, sat in the living room with an old blanket strewn about me and a bent cigarette dangling out the maw.

Every viewing, a whole new set of questions rises out the murk of the mind.

What would I have done in that situation? Would I have fought, would I have stormed up the aisle with the fire-extinguisher thrust this way and that, or would I have sat weeping into an in-flight magazine chewing on rosary beads and whispering Hare Krishna?

How many of the folks who died on that unholy morning did so whilst rejecting with all their hearts the counter-measures taken against the hijackers? How do we feel about those individuals? Are they heroes also?

Are there any heroes here?

Why is a film about the most horrendous, terrifying, tragic situation a man might imagine so exhilarating, so stirring, so life-affirming?

Part of the answer to the last, of course, is that no answers whatsoever are provided for any of the others.

United 93 is the best film of 2006 and the best of Greengrass' career thus far. It's probably the bravest, also.

"Oh aye?" says an ol' queen stood jabbing at the buttons of a poker machine in the far-end of the tavern later that evening. "And what's so brave about it, at all?"

"What's not brave about it?" says I, closing the notebook a moment. "That it goes out of its way to present the hijackers as human beings is in itself a fairly brave move."

"Human beings, is that right? Funny now, for all I saw were a bunch o' screeching yahoo's racin' about the place with red headbands on. They were caricatures."

"No they weren't, and here's why. For all of the Hard Man posturing they might've employed once they'd gained control of the plane, United 93 never once suggests that these people aren't fucking terrified, at least as terrified as the people they're bent on killing. They're terrified but they go ahead anyway, and why? Well, for any number of reasons. That it was too late to do anything else may be one. That death by that stage was a lot more welcoming than the consequences they'd face should they decide to abandon the whole wretched plot, no doubt that played on their minds. But at the bottom of it all, see, is the belief that what they were doin' was right. Greengrass refuses to present these people as monsters, I'd wager, for at least two reasons. One of them is that they weren't, at least as far as they were concerned. What they did may be evil, and surely you and I both agree on that. But were they evil? To be evil, does a man not need to be consciously acting against the notion of goodness? They didn't think that for a second."

The queen tuts and shakes his head. "Moral relativist horse-shite." He takes a jag of whiskey out the pint glass on the table-top next to him. "And what's the other reason? Why else does he so 'humanize' them, then?"

"Because to buy into the notion of an ultimate evil, to assume certain individuals are inherently, unalterably so, takes a hell of a lot of responsibility out of the hands of folks like us. And we have a hell of a lot of responsibility. At the very least, we have a responsibility to reduce the chances of folks like those onboard that flight ever having to make those kinds of decisions again."

The queen spits onto the wooden floor. Me and him, we disagree on most everything, but oh how I cherish our debates. "So the best of the year, according to you?"

"It is that. If for no reason other than it manages to be the tensest, most exhilarating thriller of the decade without ever once resorting to thriller tactics. Half an hour or more we're watching men watching tiny monitors, and yet look at these knuckles, still white however many months later."

"Well" says he, "I'll take a quarter of Passenger 57 over a dozen o' them. Wesley Snipes. Now there's a man knows how to keep an arse in shape."

"That he does" says I, opening the notebook again for to finish off an article all about how United 93 is the best film of 2006.

Thanks folks.

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About The Duke

  • Superb.

  • Roger Choate

    More than amazing!

  • Louiiiiiiiiise. That’s the review of 2007, so far.

  • Folks, thank you. I’m glad you liked it. I should add that the names in the first section there have all been changed.

  • Great stuff as always Duke. I’m not sure I could watch this film five times. I mean I loved it, but it was so gut wrenching emotionally speaking, that I don’t think my cry like a baby glands could handle it.

    I just watched Bloody Sunday the other day too. Gesum, Greengrass sure knows how to punch a guy in the emotional balls.

  • Thanks, Sir Brewster. I dare say i won’t watch it again for a while. It’s just such a damn good film, even as it’s harrowing the hell out of me i can’t help but be in awe of Greengrass’ technique.

    And on a side-note, Jimmy Nesbitt, star of Bloody Sunday, was in a flick last year which also starred… my good self! imagine that. me and Jimmy. like THAT. (links fingers to some degree by way of illustrating closness twixt himself and jimmy nesbitt, star of Bloody Sunday and the last Woody Allen, which, sadly, was shite.)

  • Most excellent, sir. Sheesh, five times!? I could see watching it maybe once more… and then maybe showing it to my kids when they grow up, if I were to have any kids. But then I was just over the river, not the ocean, when it happened…

    The discussion of which movie to see made me laugh. Just the other day my lady and I thought about seeing Letters from Iwo Jima but I wasn’t in the mood for a war pic, so we saw Pan’s Labyrinth instead – which turned out to be partially a war pic. (But one of the best films of the decade, I say.)

  • thank you, Jon! And it’s interesting, the across the ocean thing; maybe that’s why Greengrass, who is British after all, was able to make such a film. compare his work with the very different World Trade Center by Oliver Stone, for example. If Greengrass had been American, perhaps United 93 would have much more resembled Flight 93, the TV movie?

    Then again, 9/11 is a curious one because, in the UK, we were pretty much led to believe that it was ours as much as anyone elses. this is a very curious thing altogether. If, (NOTE! HYPOTHETICAL, I’M NOT ADVOCATING!) for example, buckingham palace or something had been attacked in such a way, i very much doubt that the reports in the press and on television, with the black banner headings and 24-hour coverage and what not, would have been different in any significant way.

    but, now; Pan’s Labyrinth. That one, any other year, would probably have been my Best of 2006. If you’ve yet to see The Devil’s Backbone, Del Toro’s previous civil war-based young person encounters fantastical things drama, i highly reccomend it. It’s not as good as Pan’s…, but it’s not a kick in the arse off it.

  • duane

    Duke, excellent. Unique. And I should add, not intending to imply that it is a routine matter, “as always.” Damn.

  • The general sense here in the States was what you suggest – that United 93 wouldn’t have been as good if it had been made by an American. It makes intuitive sense, although there’s no way to prove it.

  • Don’t be calling yourself a critic, Duke. Your writings put the rest of us to shame. Well done!

  • Jon, that makes sense, as you say. Mind you, there were folks whom i know in this town who were FAR more affected by 9/11 than certain American friends of mine. It’s worth looking into, i think, the effect of these things on folks oceans removed from the area afflicted. It can’t JUST be human potential for empathy, although that plays a part. it seems very selective, what we feel for and what passes by as another disaster or attack. And of course a lot of THAT has to do with coverage of the event.

    Duane and Ray, thank you very much, i’m glad you liked it. And Ray, i write the way i do partially becuase i’m not GOOD enough to be a critic. i don’t have the discipline for it, or the tightness. a clear, informative, informed review is a lot harder to write than some sprawl like that up yonder. again, thank you no end.

  • The movie managed to take the normally boring, sappy and melodramatic story of tragedy and not make a TV pap bowl out of it. Some people stood up and it is those souls that shine especially, then all the martyrs on the plane. But it is our side that were martyrs and there is no way the people who would kill thousands can be the wretched of the earth. They were young, scared, stupid terrorists fighting to bring down a world. If they are too filled with mindless hate to remember the nature of good and evil they were surely not martyrs.

    Greengrass refuses to present these people as monsters, I’d wager, for at least two reasons. One of them is that they weren’t, at least as far as they were concerned. What they did may be evil, and surely you and I both agree on that. But were they evil? To be evil, does a man not need to be consciously acting against the notion of goodness?

    As usual Sir Duke, I like your review, I like your thoughts. I surprisingly liked the movie. But they were evil. To be that kind of mass murderer a man needs only to do evil whether or not he happens to consider it evil for some bizarre religious hatred. There is a notion of goodness and there is good & evil and, religious or not (I am not), evil still describes the murderer of innocents.

    Terrific review.

  • Scott Butki

    Another great job, Duke.

  • i’m not GOOD enough to be a critic. i don’t have the discipline for it, or the tightness.

    Maybe so by some standards, but the way you present your thoughts on the film in question by creating settings and dialogues between characters is original (although cf. Plato and the ancient Greeks) and makes your form of criticism more fun to read than the usual!

    Any plans to put out a collection in the form of a book?

  • Scott, thank you!

    Howard – those are legitimate, worthwhile thoughts, and I’ve considered it at great length (partly the reason why I never wrote about this film ’till now). Personally, i think the true evil resides in the hearts of the bastards who brainwash these violent extremists in the first place. I don’t know that I can think of the ones who hijacked the planes, for example, as being 100% evil, although, as i said up yonder, the action most certainly was. But it’s the ones who coaxed them towards it, who first filled their heads with such detestable, warped, sickening ideologies and worldviews that i feel most angry about, and feel are most deserving of the term. To be taught such vile, wretched pish is bad enough, to be doing the TEACHING, standing back and watching whilst the brainwashed are going out to “matryr” themselves, before moving on to the next group of impressionable, impassioned young men and women is truly abhorant and disgusting and, yeah, evil.

    I don’t know if i’m right in saying that or if i’m being overly niave or, i dunno. But it’s what sticks in my gut, anyhow. And thank you for the kind words, and for reading and commenting.

    Jon – I’ve considered putting together some kind of compilation book thing, but at the minute i’m goin mad writin a novel and screenplay. what i did consider though was doing that once the novel was done, maybe self-publishing it as a kind of in-between whilst the terrible process of finding folks willing to publish the novel goes on. It’s somethin i’ve thought about a lot, at any rate.

  • And I thought I was the only one “staggering out the cinema like a hobo just pulled a bungalow out his urethra.” In the midst of stealing phrases from you again, I garnered a fine review of a stunning movie.–Gordon