15 February 2007

United 93: The Problem of Inspired Films

Disappointed by the ubiquitous appearance of United 93 on many respectable critics best of 2006 lists, I reprint here my essay on the film.

When United 93 was released it was, along with the subsequent World Trade Center, seen, as Frank Rich noted, as a referendum on whether or not America was prepared for “9-11 The Movie”. The problem for me, from a film critic’s standpoint, is why the general public or the media would feel that the events of September 11th necessitate a cinematic interpretation? The question is not whether it’s “too soon” to make a movie but why a movie should ever be made in the first place.

American films based on actual events and/or persons, living or dead, have always possessed a conspicuous flaw: they feel fake, because the standard Hollywood narrative form is inherently artificial. All Hollywood movies are basically identical in terms of their storytelling style; of course there is wiggle-room for variations in complexity, but on a basic level they all follow the same framework, the three-act structure of set-up, conflict, and denouement. When attempting, however, to tell inspired stories (as opposed to invented stories) within this inhibiting structure, the intricacies of the original story are inevitably lost. Real-life people and situations are irreproducibly complex; condensing them into standard Hollywood forms yields invariably awkward results. (This explains why Made-for-TV movies are often so laughable, because they need to explain months of subtle change in one or two histrionic scenes.)

Consider Ray (2004), the overrated Oscar-magnet. Obviously Ray Charles had some serious psychological problems that drove him to womanizing and drug-addiction; the film, however, reduces his motivations to his guilt over the death of his younger brother. Once he confronts this guilt, in a ridiculous dream-sequence near the end of the film, he is cured -- if only real-life were so simple!

The most successful biopic I’ve ever seen in the Hollywood style is Amadeus (1984). The filmmakers do not set out to tell Mozart’s life story so much as they use Mozart’s story to touch on larger themes like the nature of artistic genius. As a result it is largely historically inaccurate but it doesn’t really matter, particularly since there are a few centuries of distance between the film and its source of inspiration. It is not an historical film.

There are more contemporary films as well that successfully handle inspired stories, like those of Gus van Sant. His film Elephant (2003) deals with an event “ripped-from-the-headlines” (give or take a few years), a Columbine-esque school-shooting. First of all, van Sant is careful not to bind his characters to real-life individuals; they are inspired by real people, but do not come with the baggage of verisimilitudinous expectations. The Dylan Klebold stand-in won’t be judged by how much he resembles Dylan Klebold because, after all, he is not actually supposed to be Dylan Klebold.

More importantly, though, van Sant does not attempt to fit his subjects neatly into the classical Hollywood narrative style; rather, he alters and deconstructs that form in the attempt to accommodate the irresolvable complexities of his subjects. His narrative style is fractured, going back and forth through time, often forcing the audience to re-experience the same diegetic moments from alternate perspectives. There is little traditional plot to speak of, and the film is packed with long tracking shots of students roaming the school’s corridors without any real action. There are no causes, only effects, and the results are powerfully effective.

United 93, on the other hand, hits the video store shelves with full-fledged adherence to the classical Hollywood guidelines. Soon into it I felt like I was watching The Bridge on the River Kwai, waiting two and a half interminable hours for that damn bridge to explode. Thankfully, United 93 is a bit shorter. The first hour is populated mostly by military personnel and air traffic controllers watching the events of September 11th unfold on various monitors and screens (just like most of us did!); it is outright boring, but it sets up the drama. The last third of the film, which mostly takes place on the ill-fated flight, is particularly unsuspenseful, leaving the viewer to just wait for the plane to crash; this, however, leaves the viewer feeling guilty and confused. We know, in the back of our minds, that these are real people and we shouldn’t want to see them die.
The characters, however, are poorly developed and lack any more depth than the stock characters populating any generic slasher film. The hijackers are mad Islamic fundamentalists, plain and simple; the passengers are heroes, motivated by patriotism and good ol’ American courage. The film comes dangerously close to apotheosizing, and is at best jingoistic propaganda. As David Thomson wrote, “This is a picture about American courage and enterprise…[i]t is a rousing affirmation of a war effort.” The New Yorker called the film “brilliant”, but a modicum of taste and restraint (because, admittedly, the film could hypothetically have been much more vulgar) does not a brilliant film make. Good art has the power to move us in virtue of its complexities and the manner in which it works through them. United 93 does not set out to explore or to clarify, only to glorify.

The film possesses no emotional core of its own; rather than aiding the audience in working through their own engrained emotions it merely exploits them. Only those easily manipulated by the usual modes of Hollywood filmmaking should find the film in any way emotionally cathartic. The rest of us are left thinking, what the hell was the point then?There are only two reasons to produce films, or art in general: to entertain, and/or to enlighten. Only the repulsively morbid could find United 93 entertaining, and for the reasons stated above the film is not enlightening in the slightest. It seems, then, that the only reason the film was made was to expolit the deaths that resulted from the terrorist attacks for personal profit. That feels, to me, as morally repugnant as war profiteering.

Gus van Sant should have been hired to direct United 93 (or at least one the many similar made-for-cable variations) so he could’ve done for its passengers, and hijackers, what he did for the high school students of Elephant; that is, to make them into (seemingly) real human beings. It would be truly cathartic to see some ordinary, unadulterated humanity injected into the already cool and heavily mediated images of the death and destruction on September 11, 2001.


Anonymous said...

While researching Frontline's flawed documentary on Lee Harvey Oswald, I came across the transcript of a town hall meeting (literally, for it was held at Town Hall in New York) whose purpose was to discuss Oliver Stone's JFK.

My purpose here is not to discuss JFK, but during the discussion Nora Ephron (of all people!) made an interesting point: "any movie based on something that actually happened must...impose a narrative." (Emphasis mine.)

I will concede that Paul Greengrass did a good job of directing United 93, but I think what riled me so about it, aside from its arguable politics, was its crudely imposed narrative. That's its central unforgivable fault that should exclude it from so many "Top of 2006" Lists.

james flames said...

i haven't seen either movie, so my opinion is based soley on what you said at the end of your article, about the need for such movies. i think you missed one more thing that a movie should be (along with either entertaining & enlightening) - informative. not quite the same as enlightening. i guess documentaries fall mostly into this category, but there are always hollywood movies that try to "inform" the public - hotel rwanda, babel, blood diamond, etc.

sadly, united 92 and WTC don't fall into this category either, since anyone who doesn;t know the story of 9/11 is either an animal or an embryo. so i will agree with you 100% that there is no logical reason for making such movies except for exploitation and propaganda (neither of which are always bad things - tho in this case they're despicable).

Anonymous said...


Thanks for writing! But I disagree that "informative" belongs up there with "entertaining & enlightening." It can be a bonus for a film to be informative, but I wouldn't consider a movie that is solely informative a good film in the way that I could one that were solely entertaining or enlightening. I'm actually pretty tired of solely informative films, which is the bulk of documentaries being produced now. I believe there's a distinction between what constitutes the "cinematic" and the "telvisionistic", and the blurring of that line to produce movies that would function better as Wikipedia entries than as ninety minute "films". More on this in a few days when I post reviews on a couple of documentaries I saw recently. Incidentally, I've been quite addicted to Wikipedia lately...