Movie Night with Urbaniak: United 93

It’s been some while since

  came over for dinner and a movie, so I figured, why not celebrate with a harrowing drama of the events of our nation’s darkest day?hitcounter

Over a dinner of General Tso’s chicken from Dragon Palace, Urbaniak regaled me with tales of his latest acting gigs. I pressed him for information regarding the tumescent plot-lines of The Venture Bros, but this line of inquiry, I’m afraid, my friends, is a conversational non-starter. It’s not that Urbaniak is not happy to blab about the most intimate secrets of the Ventureverse, it’s that he doesn’t remember a single thing about the scripts he records. He oftenrecords episodes out of order, and then only pays attention to the scenes he’s actually in, and even then has little idea of the actual shape of an episode. Or, as he puts it, when the show is broadcast he watches it as a first-time viewer. Regarding “ORB,” for instance, he recalls watching it and remembering “Oh yeah, there was some kind of Oscar Wilde thing in one of the episodes, I forgot.” It seems that Urbaniak knows less about the Ventureverse than I do (and I know less about it than, say, anyone at The Mantis-Eye Experiment). Which, now that I think of it, seems utterly appropriate for the actor playing Rusty.

Anyway, United 93 is a swell movie — if you don’t mind holding your breath for two hours. It is about as well-executed as a movie like this — a real-life social drama about highly-charged events of recent history — could be. The writing, shooting, editing and acting are all excellent, creating a suffocating, well-nigh unbearable sense of dread and horror.

I saw United 93 on its opening weekend at the Arclight in Hollywood. The screen was huge, the sound was enveloping, the gritty, naturalistic drama overwhelming. The crowd, while not huge, was large enough. As the movie began, I began to get a sinking feeling — I realized that I had bought a ticket for a ride I didn’t really want to be on. As the drama intensified and intensified, it got to the point where I felt physically ill and short of breath. The movie was too well-made and too compelling to walk out of, but around the time the first plane hit the World Trade Center I suddenly remembered that I didn’t have a good time that day, and wondered about the wisdom of buying a ticket to experience that fear, horror, uncertainty and dread again. Plus, the bulk of the audience in the theater came, apparently, to see those fucking Arabs get it — when the final confrontation occurs in the closing minutes of the movie, there were plenty of shouts of “Kill those bastards!” in the theater.

The ensuing years have given me a little distance on the movie. It is a marvel of execution and feels unbearably “real.”  (Paul Greengrass, in his shooting style, makes Costa-Gavras look like Stanley Kramer.)  It is, structurally, a sophisticated supsense thriller, almost a heist movie with an ensemble cast. Suspense thriller? I should say it’s essentially a non-stop, 111-minute supense sequence. There is not a single moment of breathing room, no letup of suspense, only a steadily-escalating dread and horror that ends in a chaotic exclamation point.

It has all the elements of a crime melodrama. There are the terrorists, who are trying to execute their crime of crashing the plane into the Capitol building, there are the “cops,” the various air-traffic-control folk we see throughout who are trying to “solve the case” in a thicket of conflicting information and bureaucratic snafus (Urbaniak said he expected, and wanted, Walter Matthau to show up and just, you know, deal with things), and there are the passengers, the vigilantes who, pushed to their limit, finally take the law into their own hands. Hell, it’s practically The Dark Knight in that regard.

The suspense of Act I is: oh no, will the terrorists hijack the plane before their cover is blown by the other planes hitting the World Trade Center? There is a runway delay before takeoff, there are the pre-hijacking jitters of the lead terrorist, uncertainty hangs in the air. Weirdly, it puts us into the terrorists’ shoes: we sit there, squirming, ready to scream “Hijack the goddamned plane already, you assholes!” anything to break the steadily-ratcheting tension. The suspense of Act II is: oh no, will the military figure out what’s going on and cut through its red tape before the plane reaches the Capitol? The suspense of Act III is: will the passengers figure out what’s going on, make their stand and save the day?

In the end, the criminals don’t pull of the big job, the vigilantes succeed only in stopping the criminals, and the detectives don’t know there’s even a case until everyone’s dead.  There’s a 21st-century lesson in there somewhere.

The filmmakers, with very few exceptions, avoid sentiment, but still, even though I know the ending when I start the movie, there is a moment mid-way through when I suddenly realize “oh shit — all these people are going to die,” and feel weird about even watching it any more. It’s the whole “how does this qualify as ‘entertainment'” question, the same one I have while watching Schindler’s List. When you watch a Holocaust drama, dammit, you want to see Nazi atrocities, and if those atrocities are elided or prettified, you feel short-changed — they didn’t give me full bang for my Holocaust-drama dollar. Similarly, in a 9/11 drama, dammit, you want to see those planes crash. What else would you be watching the movie for?

(It is indicative of, well, something, that when the second plane hit the WTC, the first thought in every American’s mind was not “oh the humanity” but “my God, it’s just like a movie.”)


18 Responses to “Movie Night with Urbaniak: United 93”
  1. adam_0oo says:

    (It is indicative of, well, something, that when the second plane hit the WTC, the first thought in every American’s mind was not “oh the humanity” but “my God, it’s just like a movie.”)


    Plus, the bulk of the audience in the theater came, apparently, to see those fucking Arabs get it

    Really? Even years afterwards? Crazy.

  2. curt_holman says:

    The closest that United 93 has to a “Walter Matthau” character is Ben Sliney, who actually plays himself as the FAA national operations manager, a detail that fascinates me.

    I particularly like the way “Let’s roll” is delivered in such a matter-of-fact way, and not as a movie catchphrase.

    Martin Amis has a good review of United 93 in his new collection of nonfiction pieces on 9/11, and suggest that Greengrass may pull his punch only in the fact that there are no children on the flight in the film. I don’t know, however, if there were actually any young ones on the plane. In fact, I’d rather not know.

    • Anonymous says:

      The youngest person on the plane was actually one of the hijackers, at 20 years old. Which is pretty heart-wrenching all the same.

    • I particularly like the way “Let’s roll” is delivered in such a matter-of-fact way, and not as a movie catchphrase.

      Part of the reason I haven’t watched UNITED 93 yet is that, for whatever reason, whenever I think of it I imagine a version directed by Michael Bay and I have a irrational fear that *that* is what I’m actually going to see.

      Imagine the “Let’s roll” bit in a scene directed by Bay. Drives me fucking nuts.

      • Todd says:

        Not only does the “let’s roll” moment not happen the way you fear it will, Greengrass actually puts the line into the mouth of a completely different character. You are safe.

      • curt_holman says:

        I envision a steadicam shot that races from the front end of the plane down the aisle to the stop with an EXTREME CLOSE UP of the face of the “Let’s Roll Guy” (Bruce Willis), who says the line. And then stuff explodes.

        But why dwell on imaginary awful Michael Bay scenes when there are so many real ones to dwell on instead?

        • Much like that except that the line is not said so much as hollered as a battle cry as the passengers charge the cabin in slow motion and while bombastic music swells and the inevitable jump cuts to and from the scene interspersed with images of the young children looking up into the sky and a billowing American flag.

  3. You bought a ticket for a ride you didn’t want to be on – hahah!

    I was at a university, watching Drowning By Numbers when 911 occurred. It was like going from a happyhigh moment to . . . well you know.

    Though, Fish Beach is infinitely sorrowful.

  4. moroccomole says:

    I feel like the only person I know who hated both United 93 and Schindler’s List.

    But I’m not trying to be difficult, I swear.

  5. crazyjane13 says:

    Hi …

    What fascinated me about Greengrass’ execution of this admittedly touchy subject was how many of the ‘characters’ were actually played by the air traffic controllers, military, etc., who were right there on the day.

    I found myself wondering if the film-makers had arranged counselling for them all …

    • Todd says:

      Of if making the movie was therapy enough for them. I don’t rightly know, but I hope the experience was good for them.

  6. laminator_x says:

    Your visceral response to this film reminds me of my own experience seeing Saving Private Ryan. At the time I caught it, it so happened that the only people in the theatre besides myself and my friend Lynn were a quartet of Old Veterans, complete with their hats covered in pins, sitting a few rows behind us.

    I halfway wanted to leave during the initial hit-the-beaches sequence, not for my own sake, but for theirs. We could hear the vets breathing hard in the empty theatre. I felt like we were intruding somehow.

  7. I was a quarter-mile from the south wall of the Pentagon on 9/11. I think I would actually be MORE disturbed by seeing the people, rather than the planes crashing. Been there, heard that, saw the smoke and flames live in person. I really don’t think I will ever be able to handle a movie on the subject. I can barely handle getting on an airplane.

    I do not have a similar problem with “Schindler’s List”, I think partially because most of the main characters don’t die, but also because I interned in the photo archives of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and yes, it is indeed possible to be totally desensitized to the subject.

  8. stainedecho says:

    I don’t think I need to see any of the 9/11 movies. I already know how I feel about that day.. hell I still know exactly where I was and what I was doing all day of that horrible day. I don’t need anyone else’s memories, and I certainly don’t need to relive that day.

    It’s fine that there are movies made about it and that other people like them, they just aren’t for me. 🙂

  9. Anonymous says:

    United 93

    I thought “United 93” was a brilliant film, but I never want to see another frame of it ever again. I, too, saw this the weekend it opened at the Arclight Cinerama Dome. I had pretty much the same experience you did while watching it. I was with friends and when the lights went down we all sort of wondered just what the hell we were doing there & why on earth we paid for it. From film’s beginning to its end the audience was deathly quiet. A unique & wrenching movie-going experience.

    – Bob