September 11 has by no means been absent from the pop culture landscape in the last four and a half years. Bruce Springsteen released an entire album of songs evoking the day less than a year after the attacks. Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg have all used the Twin Towers to underscore the message of their films. Countless other entertainers have directly or indirectly referenced the day, some tastelessly, some profoundly.
When United 93 is released this Friday, however, it will mark the first time a mainstream piece of popular “entertainment” has attempted to recreate the day, forcing willing audiences to again feel the shock and terror unfold minute by minute. It will employ arguably the most powerful storyline from that day, the heroic storming of the cockpit by ordinary citizens that quite possibly saved the U.S. Capitol and prevented almost unimaginable chaos. With this movie, there is no more dancing around the subject. An account of the most visceral, horrible experience many of us could ever imagine is going to be floating around the country in a matter of days whether we like it or not.
This movie is not simply a matter of “if you don’t like it, don’t see it.” September 11 is a day owned by everyone. It’s a part of our national consciousness and, for better or for worse, has altered the course of American and world history. If the attacks are not treated with respect or are prostituted in any way, it is an insult to all of us, not the least of who are the thousands and thousands of people who lost friends and family members. Ideally, the nation as a whole would be able to decide when it’s ready to be explicitly forced to relive the day, because even if you decide not to see it, you have no choice but to be reminded. More troubling is that we know someone has designed a product aimed at making money off the worst shared day of our lives. For whatever reasons, most of them warranted, people associate Hollywood with bean counters and bottom lines more than other modes of entertainment. We know that if a movie has made it through the treacherous studio development system, it is being released because executives see a profit. There are no mistakes in Hollywood. There is no altruism.
In the past, I have taken my standard self-righteous stand against this sort of “national disaster as Hollywood magic” approach. Following the release of Pearl Harbor, I wrote an editorial for my high school paper denouncing the movie for exploiting the people who lost their lives (it was accompanied by quite possibly my favorite headline of all-time: “Bitter Man Hates Life, Pearl Harbor”). I stand by that opinion and, even though this tragedy has had a shelf life roughly 1/15th of Pearl Harbor, I still think a September 11 movie is well within the realm of acceptable taste.
My problems with Pearl Harbor stemmed not from its existence but from its tone. Make all the Pearl Harbor movies you want (and there have been others); just make them with respect. I don’t think any topic should be off-limits; to some extent the more difficult it is, the more we should have the option to see and decide how we feel about it. When you’re dealing with an event that killed thousands and changed the world, however, it demands that you do so with an air of gravitas that matches the event. Pearl Harbor was designed to draw audiences who wanted to get their jollies by seeing sweet explosions and Ben Affleck act like a tool. It was Michael Bay’s follow-up to Armageddon and The Rock, for God’s sake.
To offer a contrast, nobody went to see Saving Private Ryan to hoot and applaud at legless men screaming in agony on Omaha Beach or to Schindler’s List to see boobs. People went to confront emotions they normally aren’t asked to confront. Is it a pleasant thought that people are making money off tears and stunned silence? No, but it’s better than not being allowed to have those reactions in the first place, and as long as corporations control what we see (a.k.a. forever), tough luck, that’s the way it’s going to be.
The sense I get is that United 93 will be very much like these last two films. The early reviews have been strong, and the director, Paul Greengrass, has earned the benefit of the doubt on tackling sensitive subjects. His 1972 account of the Bloody Sunday massacres garnered raves from critics and victims’ families alike. There is nothing to indicate that he will treat his subject with anything but the highest reverence. One can only imagine the eggshells he and the studio are walking on. As for the victim’s families, I find it difficult to believe this project could go forward without the explicit approval of the vast majority of them. Moreover, the film is, if nothing else, a tribute to those who died. While there has been outcry from some, when a calamity touches so many people, unanimous approval is next to impossible and should not be a barrier that squelches any discussion that is the least bit disagreeable.
All that being said, why would or should anyone sit down in a movie theater to have your emotions battered for two hours? To be perfectly honest, I was floored when I first saw the preview. The scant two minutes of footage unfolding in a three by six inch screen on my computer were as powerful and evocative as anything I can remember seeing. The resultant daze was something I hadn’t felt triggered by a movie since sitting silently till the credits of Saving Private Ryan finally finished rolling. I know all this is corny, but even though it didn’t kill irony as predicted, it’s still pretty tough to be cynical about the actual events of September 11. Watching the passengers’ progression mirror ours, from monotonous early morning doldrums to confusion, agony, horror, and everything in between, guarantees to be as gripping and awful as anything ever put to film. Everyone has imagined what it must have been like to sit trapped and waiting for death to arrive. Seeing it happen in real time cannot help but elicit all the intense and painful memories many tried so hard to bury.
It’s in this reaction that the ultimate worth of United 93 will be found. From September 12, 2001, onward, not a day has passed that we haven’t been reminded in some way of what transpired. Most of us, however, have not felt the day. In fact, we have tried extremely hard not to. We have buried the emotions of September 11 behind easy slogans: “Always Remember,” “Never Again,” “Support Our Troops.” It all happened so fast. It was so unexpected and so traumatic that nobody really ever got a chance to step back and rationally digest exactly what happened. We took for granted that it changed the world, but never examined how or why it did. There comes a point where September 11 must entail something more than the knee-jerk sympathy and patriotism we use to cope with the tragedy.
Has there ever been anything approaching a national dialogue on the issue? Have we ever really tried to understand what it meant for our country in a way that doesn’t closely ally with all the political animosity that has swelled in the following years? For those who see it and those who don’t, United 93 will again force us to grapple with the immediate feelings of the day, not just the ones that have been manufactured by the War in Iraq or the Patriot Act. Do I believe that a movie is going to lead us to some grand enlightenment on the day? Of course not. But ideally, it will get people talking and it will get people thinking about that day in an immediate and personal way with four years of hindsight to guide them. We’ve been told endlessly that everything changed. And it did. The time has come to start asking what did change, why it did, and what exactly that means for the future of this country.