I had a feeling I didn’t want to see United 93. Seeing Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 a couple summers ago threw me into a profound depression that required chemical intervention to resolve. I worried that watching this latest take on the reality of the terrorist hijackings would again unsettle my psyche but, curious about the film and the number of conflicting responses it’d already received, I was persuaded to go along.
The film was indeed horrific, reliving September 11th from the perspective of the people on the doomed plane eventually forced down by its passengers into a Pennsylvania field. But as directed by Paul Greengrass, the movie showed more restraint and a remarkable kind of respect for history and experience, something I wasn’t expecting from a mainstream release.
One of the most salient aspects of the film is how it captured what ordinary life was like before that day, before something so unimaginable happened and proceeded to change us. Watching the dawning realization on the faces of the air traffic controllers and the passengers alike about what was happening along the east coast that day, I was struck by how historical, already, seems that sense of surprise. Although the United States might once again be caught off guard and although we no doubt remain vulnerable, we’re now psychically and emotionally prepared for what on September 10th, 2001, was literally unthinkable.
Perhaps the most notable achievement of the film is its refusal to participate in a knee-jerk discourse of patriotism and individualistic heroism that could have been fabricated for the narrative. None of the men (and of course they were men, although the female flight attendant proves fairly brave throughout) who stormed the terrorists were turned into individual heroes. The film represented them as a group of ordinary people who made the necessary decisions and took the necessary action. United 93 seems almost un-American in its willingness to distribute collective agency for action, and also surprised me with how little it invited the audience to admire the group acting to bring down the plane. In its laudable restraint, the narrative observes, conjectures, and speculates, but never invites us to single out one of the people on the plane for undue hero worship or, for that matter, demonization.
Although the film manages not to completely demonize the hijackers, it can’t resist making them seem alien. The film opens with a fairly long establishing scene that puts the hijackers in their hotel room, preparing themselves for martyrdom. Rather than representing them as full of righteous bloodlust, however, the film, without really personalizing them at all, since both the hijackers and the passengers remain nameless ciphers throughout, manages to express the hijackers’ own terror at their pending acts, and the dizzying fear that grips them even as they go about their unalterable plan. The film watches them praying in dim light; watches them pull their packs together and get ready to leave. Offering just that much of the terrorists’ experience meant that the film shared more of their back-stories than any of the other passengers.
The film could have pandered to sentimentality, using a Flight Plan-style of airplane drama in which each character is carefully established, mostly for his/her good/bad role in the eventual drama, and then plugged into a predictable plot line whose ending is clear from the opening frame. But although we all know what happens at the end of United 93, the film steers away from predictability in the more distanced, external way in which it handles the characters.
The film goes out of its way to represent commonalities between the passengers and the hijackers, especially in scenes toward the end when both groups are seen praying, even if to different gods. The hijacker flying the plane, who’s represented as barely knowing what he’s doing, radiates remorse and ambivalence, along with palpable personal fear. For better or worse, all of these people seemed caught up in something larger than themselves, in a current of history that pulls them inexorably toward a finale in which they’re ultimately only bit players.
The scenes of passengers calling their loved ones to say goodbye, once they understand that they’ll never return to the ground alive, are wrenching, but in a more global or even universal way, since the audience really doesn’t have the time or the information to fashion identifications with any of them individually. The sorrow we feel as several of them make their last cell phone calls is akin to mourning for a horrible, tragic situation that embraces them and us, the hijackers and the passengers, rather than singling out anyone for more specific, particularizing grieving. This choice made my reaction to the film that much more poignant; it asked me to mourn for us all, for everyone in the world touched by these events.
The film escalates in pace and tone until it achieves a kind of hysteria that proceeds to the final bloody encounter between passengers and hijackers, but the emotion is a shared, rather than an individual (and what would be a typically gendered) one. Even the air traffic controllers and the Air Force people on the ground trying to piece together what’s happening to the plane aren’t singled out by their heroism (even though many of those in the film are real people, replaying the events of the day, rather than actors reimagining them). Perhaps the film’s most political gesture is to underline how flummoxed all the officials were and how little protocol they could rely on in this particular situation.
To hear the Air Force personnel begging for rules of engagement, and to see an FAA administrator trying to making decisions on his own, on the spot, without any guidance from the government, is the most chilling and in a way humanizing part of the film. Here, United 93 picks up whereFahrenheit 9/11 left off, underscoring how Bush and his administration were nowhere in evidence at the most devastating moment of recent American history. Watching the air traffic control staff and the Air Force personnel frantically trying to connect with higher government powers, I could only picture Bush in Moore’s film, frozen in that kindergarten classroom listening to a story with his lips pursed and blank fear in his eyes after he’s been told that planes have flown into the World Trade Center.
Seeing Michael Moore’s film sent me into a major tailspin, and I left United 93 feeling similarly, hammered by a tremendous loss of my typical faith in the power we have to change things. I left both films embarrassed at the naiveté with which I write books with “hope” in their subtitles. A sense of utter futility overcame me, thinking about how much is wrong in the world and how incapable any of us are of really effecting meaningful change. These moments of despair make me feel defeated and ineffectual, paralyzed and powerless, and just silly in my life of hope and conviction. And that’s not good. To me, falling off that particular horse means giving in to something evil and oppressive in the world, something that insists on its version of truth at the cost of my own, however fragilely mine is held.
So when I got home from United 93 that night—still wondering why we need to see such films, why they need to be made, even knowing that it’s because history needs them, and so do we, so that we don’t forget so easily what happened and how it made us feel and think—I settled in front of television to allow popular culture to help me escape for a moment instead of reminding me to remember and forcing me to confront my own hope-filled futility.
I surfed channels until I found Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the ‘tween girls’ story based on a young adult novel by Ann Brashares about four friends who find a pair of pants that miraculously fits all of them, which they send back and forth to each other while they’re apart for the summer. The magical pants prompt an epiphany of sorts for each girl, through rather stock plots: One finds love in the Greek isles with her grandparents and a dreamy fisherman. Another goes away to soccer camp where she seduces one of the instructors, looking for the love she lost when her mother committed suicide. Another (America Ferrera) goes to visit her father for the summer, only to find that he’s brutally replaced her and her Puerto Rican mother with the whitest of white families.
The most interesting character is a would-be filmmaker (Amber Tamblyn) with a social conscience who interviews people who work at places like Wal-Mart about their lives, but can’t really see their humanity until she meets a 12-year-old girl who’s dying of leukemia. The kid teaches the older girl to see life ethically and expansively before she (of course) dies, but there’s also something refreshingly queer about their relationship. I appreciated the baby-dyke outlook of Tamblyn’s character, and the insights about racism the film tries to share, even if their resolution is too pat.
Although I knew as I watched that Sisterhood was manipulating my emotions and reassuring me with its conventions, I needed the easy tears the film prompted, and the beautiful settings and the cute kids and the ironic outsider/queer kid and all that predictable plotting to make me feel a bit more even again. Sometimes, narrative is just reassuring, even when we want to change the stories it tells about the women and the girls, even when we see its holes and pettiness, even when we’re profoundly aware of its unreality and the damage it can do when it’s not engaged it critically. The narratives of United 93 and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants serve two wildly different social functions. I think we need them both.
The Feminist Spectator