At the end of every spring semester, Princeton University (where I will be a senior in the fall) has a ten-day period in mid-May of no classes to give students time to write our final term papers. Three days before all my work was due, I desperately needed a study break to recharge my mental batteries. Taking a brief hiatus from the papers (on David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, and English constitutional history), I went to a free showing of Paul Greengrass’ film United 93 at the local movie theater.
This film has been blogged and written about extensively; yet most commentators have missed United 93‘s message. The plot is well-known to everyone who lived through the events it depicts; the film faithfully follows the 9/11 Commission Report of what happened on September 11, 2001.
Partly, media discussion has focused on the question of whether it was even artistically responsible to make and release such a film five years after the horrifically tragic events portrayed. But that debate is fairly naive: capitalism’s ‘cultural logic’ holds that every issue is a ‘legitimate subject’ for artistic usage (some might prefer the term ‘exploitation’) so long as the producer can make a buck out of it; of course tragedy can appear — and has appeared — on the screen if people will buy tickets to see it. It is far more interesting to consider how United 93 renders the real, lived tragedy on screen.
I have been thinking about the film for several weeks now, and I now feel that United 93 is disturbing and problematic — and that it ultimately does a disservice to the event it portrays and to the victims it purports to honor.
The question United 93 poses in the context of our post-9/11 cultural milieu is essentially a mimetic one: what is the appropriate way of representing reality when the real has effectively become what was once the horrifically absurd — that evil terrorists would hijack 747s and crash them into large buildings full of civilians? What I want to suggest is that United 93 is essentially ‘wrong’ ideologically, or more precisely, that its real message about the nature of tragedy, terrorism, and the status of the victim is highly provocative and unconventional, to the point of bordering on the obscene.
Before giving my reading of United 93, let me make absolutely clear that I have not the slightest intention of denigrating the victims of that horrific day or trivializing the true tragic nature of the event. Indeed, I see the film as flawed precisely because it fails to do justice to the awfulness of what transpired on 9/11. I have some strong personal feelings about the attacks — I was a junior in high school in Washington, DC, and I remember distinctly and vividly the horror of being in the city when the Pentagon was attacked. Admittedly, those feelings color my understanding of the film — I saw the tragedy unfold before me, and while I respect both artistic license and free speech (which includes the right to be offended), I want to see the memory of every victim honored and represented fairly. Art, including films such as Greengrass’, needs to be thought about and interrogated, not simply put on a pedestal as if it were a divine rather than a human creation. I write in that spirit.
United 93‘s power lies in both the film’s inability to place the events of 9/11 in a broader historical context, and the fact that the lack of context does not matter: everyone watching the film already knows the background story — the end of the Cold War, the formation of Al Qaeda, the rise of other militant groups like Hezbollah, US intervention in the Arab and Islamic world, Afghanistan and the Taliban, the evolution of US foreign policy interests in the Middle East after World War II, etc. (arguably, what really hovers over the film is not this history, but instead the broader encounter between global capitalism and Islamism). We all know that what unfolds on the screen is one battle in a broader struggle, and in this sense, not exceptional in the abstract — before September 11, 2001, violent attacks by Al Qaeda or its affiliates had already occurred at Khobar Towers (1996), the American embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi (1998), and the USS Cole (2000); though certainly exceptional in its specifics — the focus upon civilian lives, the location of the attack (on American soil), the number of people killed, the extent of the violent destruction, and the psychological and cultural aftermath. Because this history is so deeply embedded in our consciousness, we don’t need to be reminded about it — we go into the film with it in the back of our mind. United 93 portrays one event occurring within a meta-structure of the struggle between global capitalism and the Islamist reaction against it, but the context is latent and assumed- never referred to directly.
The film is thus about an anomaly — a rebellion against a rebellion. The passengers fight back against the terrorists, who are at the same time revolting against American policies and culture. We in the audience identify deeply and profoundly with those who take control of the crisis — but this is in a sense misleading. Consider: what if this movie had been about any of the other flights- the ones that actually hit their targets? The hijackers would not look any better; but the audience would have no point of identification with the passengers. Herein is the power of United 93: it is a film about a success, not a failure. Of course, we know that the rebelling passengers did not stop the plane from crashing; but they succeeded because they prevented the terrorists from hitting the intended target (which the film implies is the Capitol building). Their heroic act is in saving others under circumstances where they cannot save themselves — this is why the movie is ‘feel-good,’ not purely tragic. If one were to make a movie about any of the other flights, it would be a true horror story, because there isn’t anything an audience could take hope from.
This is my concern about United 93: its focus on the exceptional treats the consensus understanding of what occurred — that the passengers on the other planes were true passive victims of terrorism who could not do anything to prevent their flights from crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon — as if it were a lie. The whole message of the film is that even when people are reduced to the most extreme state of victimhood, they still have agency to constrain the negative effects of their suffering on others. It is here that United 93 implicitly asks what strike me as offensive questions: why didn’t the passengers on the other planes rebel? The passengers on the flight clearly demonstrated that it was possible to do fight back against the box-cutter-armed terrorists, so why didn’t those on the other flights do so? These are extremely uncomfortable things to consider; yet they form the perverse core message of the film.
Therefore, United 93 mocks my understanding of 9/11 — that all the passengers were passive victims. The film attacks that understanding by arguing that the passengers weren’t passive victims: they had agency and the ability to prevent planes from crashing into their intended targets. Those who went to their deaths in a field in Pennsylvania thwarted the hijackers’ objective — in the most profoundly selfless act imaginable the passengers of flight 93 successfully saved the lives of others. Prior to thinking about the film, I like most Americans firmly believed the opposite: that the passengers did not have any agency in the course of history. But as you can see, the film’s move of giving agency to the passengers on United 93 has disturbing implications for how we think about those passengers traveling on the other flights who did not fight back. This film forces us to question what we want to believe transpired on those other three flights- not because it promotes any vile conspiracy theories about what happened (because United 93 doesn’t), but instead in terms of how all of us who survived the attacks imagine the unimaginable, what it meant to be on one of those planes. It promotes deeply disturbing thoughts about the passengers on those other flights- the movie does the truly unthinkable by putting their moral status into question. I find that dishonorable, and that’s why United 93 is a problematic film, in spite of its clearly noble intentions.
Asheesh Kapur Siddique, a member of Princeton University’s Class of 2007, writes a featured blog for CampusProgress.org.