I had seen United 93 in the theater when it was first released and I thought it was an under-appreciated masterpiece. It still perplexes me that it was nominated for a mere two Academy Awards (although, the richly-deserved categories were for Directing and Editing). However, while I was happy to own it for such a low price, I couldn’t ever really psyche myself up to watch it. Last night, upon hearing of Osama bin Laden’s death, I was struck with a bizarre sense of mixed emotions and concluded that there was probably no finer time to re-visit United 93 than right then.
Watching the film for the first time in six years, I had not forgotten how it had affected me, but I had forgotten the details of its intensity. Any film that attempts to recreate actual events is a huge enough challenge, but for a film to do as good a job as this one does is a miracle. As Roger Ebert points out in his thoughtful review of the film, the filmmakers avoid propaganda, grandstanding, and over-dramatization in a fierce dedication to present the events as truthfully and authentically as possible. It feels like a real-time documentary. For instance, when the first plane hits the World Trade Center, we’re not shown some impressive special-effects piece of a plane turning into a fireball upon impact. Instead, we’re literally looking over the shoulder of an air traffic controller who is tracking the flight as it instantaneously disappears from his radar. The whole film is haunting in this sense because the viewer is treated as a virtual participant, but a participant who knows what’s going to happen and can do nothing about it.
Most impressive, however, is the human element. Even though the actions of the passengers on that flight were most definitely heroic, nobody in the film is intentionally portrayed as a hero. Furthermore, the terrorists aren’t even technically portrayed as villains. They are every bit as human as anyone else in the film, just on the opposite end of the same tragedy. You have the zealot who seems all too eager to slit the throats of every hostage before their target is even reached, you have the nervous perfectionist who compensates for his fears by being overtly aggressive, you have the young thug willing to follow orders but unable to think for himself, and the stoic leader who seems to worry that his underlings are ill-prepared to carry out a mission of such importance. To show these men going about their day as everyone else went about their day on September 11th before tragedy struck makes one think.
Hearing of Osama bin Laden being killed after all this time brought to mind a line from the movie Se7en where Morgan Freeman’s character says of the serial killer he’s hunting: “If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the devil – I mean, if he’s Satan himself – that might live up to our expectations. But, he’s not the devil, he’s just a man.” Osama bin Laden has been labeled a devil by many Americans and now may be labeled a martyr by many extremists, but he was still just a person. Yes, his death is good thing - even if only for the sake of closure - but everybody that died before him is still dead.