Riveting United 93: Too soon—or not soon enough?

By Matt Johnston

How could art ever come too soon? When former New Jersey poet laureate Amiri Baraka penned “Somebody Blew Up America”—a poem which, among other things, insinuated that Israeli workers were warned to stay away from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001—did anyone say it was too soon to write a poem about one of the saddest events in recent history? No, of course not. It will never be too soon for poetry itself. The time will never be right for that particular poem.

Preemptive arguments against United 93—the first mainstream American movie to portray the September 11 attacks—must then be based on the assumption that filmmakers are second-class artists, not in the same ranks as venerated poets. Granted, many of them aren’t. Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor comes to mind as an unworthy response to tragedy. It is not a good movie. It would not have been a good movie whether it was released in 1951 or 2001. But its existence is no more a sign that we should stop responding to tragedy through cinema than Baraka’s incendiary poem is a sign that we should throw in the towel on poetry.

United 93, incredibly, is a film that probably did not come soon enough. Its shaky-camera minimalism works up the raw energy necessary to recreate the awful feelings of the day. Of all the great things movies can do, the greatest may be transporting us to other worlds and foreign experiences, allowing us to live outside the restrictions of who we happen to be. At last, after five years of discussing and politicizing the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we finally enter the cabin of a hijacked plane and really, truly consider what that experience might have been. We really, truly consider how we would react, how heroic our actions might be, and how we might select the last words to a loved one. We also, in an even more unconventional fashion, consider what it would be like for the terrorists. United 93 makes no excuses for them, but it does take on their perspective from time to time. They, like the other passengers, are frightened and unprepared for the situation. This brave film asks us to stare them in the face and consider what that day was like for them.

There is a fine tradition of calling such films powerful and moving. United 93 is both, but it is also gut-wrenching and painful. I left the theater feeling nauseated. Though many good movies are also favorite movies, here is one that fits firmly and exclusively into the former category. The cineplex setting is no help. Previews and popcorn feel as out of place here as at a funeral.

I am disappointed that Universal did not make arrangements with theaters to forego all advertisements and otherwise create a more appropriate atmosphere for such a mournful tale. I am torn between recommending that you wait to see it at home—where you can control your surroundings—or see it now on the big screen as it was intended. Most people experienced the events depicted on their home television to begin with, and I feel this film ought to be something distinct. It is not and should not be confused with news reports or nonfiction. The theatrical setting helps remind us that this is more of an emotional than a factual experience.

In any case, you should see it. United 93 is an important addition to our ongoing national conversation. It observes more than it argues, and that is perhaps why it is unifying critics and audiences so strongly in its favor. Though it was exhaustively researched, little of the key information is new. What comes out most forcefully, beyond the violent claustrophobia, is the immense confusion. By now, we all know that the intelligence community missed some important clues about what was coming. What has been emphasized less is the difficulty that large, interlocking organizations have dealing with crises in the moment.

The film cycles through many different command centers, each full of people waiting for authorization and information from others. In this age of computers and connectivity, it is easy to forget that our systems are still essentially human. Surely, we imagine, computers or satellites can always locate planes—but, in fact, officials figured out that American Flight 11 had crashed into the World Trade Center by watching CNN and estimating that the hole shown in the north tower was approximately the right size for a commercial airliner.

Details like that are important and frightening. They are contained in any number of books but surely not in such powerfully memorable form as they take in cinema. And yet, United 93 mostly shies away from famous images. We see United Flight 175 hit the south tower only from a distance. For the most part, the action of the film takes place on United Flight 93 itself. We begin to recognize a few people, but even within the cabin, distance is kept from individual characterizations. That was probably a wise choice. There are many, many stories to be told about the September 11 attacks, and United 93 chooses to tell a few in uncompromising, uncomfortable, exacting detail. It could not have come too early, but it is still not too late.