Friday, September 30, 2011

Sounds of Cinema October Programs 2011

Throughout October, Sounds of Cinema will feature a month-long Halloween theme. Every episode this October will be organized around some Halloween-related motif.

October 2, 2011: The Horror of Non-Horror Films
I'll take a look at films not categorized in the horror genre but use horrific images and themes. This episode will include music from films like Requiem for a Dream, Inglorious Basterds, and Apocalypse Now.

October 9, 2011: Folk Tales and Urban Myths
This episode will include music from films that are adapted from folk tales and urban myths, including Sweeney Todd, Candyman, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

October 16, 2011: Hammer Films
Sounds of Cinema will take a look back at the legacy of Hammer Films, one of the most important studios in horror film history, and feature music from James Bernard and others.

October 23, 2011: Weird Science
This episode will focus on the overlap of science fiction and horror and include music from films such as Bride of Frankenstein, Aliens and The Thing.

October 30, 2011: Devil's Night
The last regularly scheduled October episode will look at films featuring Satan or devil-related characters or themes such as The Devil's Advocate, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Lucifer Rising. (Those listening on 89.7 KMSU FM will hear a pledge drive episode.)

October 30, 2011: Halloween Special
A Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special featuring music and audio clips will air at 11pm on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sounds of Cinema 9/25/2011

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema was a replay of my look at the American Film Institute's list of the twenty-five greatest film scores. Check out this previous post, in which I provide a list of alternate scores and soundtracks.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

9/11 Film Series: Final Thoughts

The week of September 11 - 16th, 2011 I coordinated a 9/11 Film Series on the Winona State University campus to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack.

During the 2010-11 school year I began sponsoring campus film screenings as a way of promoting the show and expanding its mission. Initially I thought it would be good fun, and it was, to show a few provocative and important pictures and hopefully tie them into larger issues going on in cinema and in the culture at large.

Over the summer of 2011 I was struck with the approaching ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attack but when I tried to nail down a single film that would encapsulate the event or some piece of its aftermath, I felt as though I were neglecting the greater whole. So I decided that the only way I could really deal with the anniversary of 9/11 was to show a series of films that addressed, if not all, at least a broad spectrum of the issues involved.

Once I realized I’d have to show a series of films I knew I was going to need financial support and so I brought the project to a variety of campus departments, organizations, and individuals and the response was very positive. In all, the 9/11 Film Series was sponsored Winona State University's Communication Studies Department, English Department, Department of Housing and Residence Life, Department of Theater and Dance, Office of Inclusion and Diversity, Office of Student Life and Development, the Philosophy Department, University Programming Activities Committee, Vic Colaizzi and Anne Plummer of the Art Department, and Jim Williams of the Theater Department. This coalition got behind the project and I’m grateful to them for helping to make this happen.

As I set about devising the screening schedule there were of course practical considerations based on what was available and what I’d be able to afford. But I also felt that the selection and arrangement of films should not be random but should take the viewers through the event and its aftermath.

One element I wanted to avoid was deliberate political partisanship. I have my own feelings about 9/11 and its aftermath but I did not believe it was appropriate for me to use the film series as a soap box or to use films that did the same. A lot of Hollywood’s response to September 11th was made of liberal soapbox statements such as Rendition and Redacted (as well as a few conservative battle cries like 300 and The Path to 9/11) and most of those pictures weren’t very good anyway so leaving them out was not difficult. But even pictures that were successful such as Green Zone or documentaries that were important to the history of the September 11th period such as Michael Moore’ Fahrenheit 9/11 had to be excluded because including them would alienate part of the audience and obfuscate the issues that needed to be dealt with.

In 1974 director Peter Davis released the documentary Hearts and Minds, which remains, in my opinion, one of the finest documentaries about the Vietnam War. According to Davis, he developed the film around three questions: Why did we go to Vietnam? What did we do when we got there? And what did that, in turn, do to us? As I selected and arranged the films in this series, I adapted Davis’ questions: What happened on 9/11? What did we do in response? And what did our response do to us?

From there I assembled six pictures that would address these questions, starting with United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass, which dramatizes and restages the 9/11 attack with an emphasis on the events aboard United Airlines Flight 93. That was followed by Osama, which is an Afghani film about a girl and her family living under the Taliban, and a pair of documentaries: Restrepo, which documents American troops in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, and Taxi to the Dark Side, which addresses the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by the American military and intelligence services. The series wrapped up with The Messenger, which is a dramatization about soldiers on a Casualty Notification Team, and Four Lions, which is a dark comedy about suicide bombers.

United 93 gave audiences the unique opportunity of facing the horror of 9/11. The key word there is “horror” because this film functions very much like a horror film, which allows people the opportunity to submit themselves to trauma from the safety of a theater seat and face their fears. Doing that represents the beginning of addressing our unresolved feelings about that day and coming to terms with it.

While arranging the film schedule, I deliberately set Osama up next to United 93. This was partly to do with the realities of intolerance directed at Muslim community after the September 11th attack and the ongoing sensitivity about that issue. There are many things interesting and unique about Osama but within the context of this series and coming off of the intensity of United 93, what this film contributes is a sense of empathy for the people of Afghanistan and makes an important differentiation between the majority of peaceful Muslims and a minority of violent extremists.

Restrepo is an extraordinary piece of documentary filmmaking. Some of its extraordinary qualities are due to its objective style. There is no voice over telling us what to think, just a masterful collection of images and scenarios from the war front. In a way this film is more challenging to audiences because it forces them to think about the United States’ response to 9/11 and the blood, sweat, and tears that have been shed in the process. It is also extraordinary because it is one of the few major pieces of documentary cinema about war that actually focuses on life on the ground in Afghanistan.

Taxi to the Dark Side is more deliberate in its theme and tone as it explores what the United States did to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. With the recent releases of memoirs by former Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, this issue has returned to the talking head TV circuit which gave the film some fortuitous immediacy. But what is most important to take from Taxi the Dark Side, which will haunt this country for some time, is what it reveals about how our response to 9/11 affected us politically and militarily but also morally. After watching the abyss of horrors of United 93 and Osama, that abyss begins to stare back at us in Taxi to the Dark Side.

The Messenger’s story of soldiers returning home from the war confronts the audience with the aftermath of all this and explores how we treat the troops when they get here. Each character of The Messenger has their own issues to deal with, particularly loneliness and isolation. And when viewed after Restrepo and Taxi to the Dark Side, this film takes on added dimensions. But what The Messenger also suggests is the possibility of hope through compassion and love in all of its forms: romantic, familial, platonic, and brotherly.

The last film in the series was Four Lions, which is a comedy but a challenging one. Four Lions bookended this film series with United 93. Where the first film showed us the terror of that day, Four Lions invites us to laugh at it. Although that sounds vulgar, Four Lions picks up the absurdity of all this and plays it for maximum satirical effect. And if the goal of the terrorist is to terrorize—that is, to cause fear—then laughing at them might be the most devastating retaliation of all.

Part of the reason I do this show is that I think movies are important. And not just high class Hollywood Oscar bait or prestigious art films but the cumulative effects of cinema from family films to grindhouse movies. It is important to remember that cinema can have consequences. We know, for example, that Joseph Goebbels used motion pictures as one of the primary tools of the Nazi propaganda campaign, especially in driving and shaping anti-Semitic attitudes that paved the way for the Final Solution. But we can also look at a film like Schindler’s List and appreciate filmmakers exposing the horrors of the Holocaust and coping with its legacy.

Motion pictures cannot change the world. Only people can do that. Film can light the way, showing us the possibilities, the hopes, and the fears. But when the credits are over and the film runs its last real we have to leave the theater seat and reenter the world. What we can hope for in the auditorium is illumination but that’s all for nothing if we forget about that on our trip back up the aisle.

You can find extended commentaries on each of the films screened in the 9/11 Film Series here:

Friday, September 16, 2011

9/11 Film Series: Four Lions

Tonight was the last film in the 9/11 Film Series: Four Lions, a dark comedy about suicide bombers.

As I designed the 9/11 Film Series, I felt that Four Lions would be an effective bookend to this film series with United 93. As I indicated in my blog entry about United 93, that film views very much like a horror picture, and horror and comedy and like brother and sister in that they often find laughs or scares in fundamentally the same things. A gory horror film like Hostel makes us squirm or scream in terror at the inner functions of the human body but a bawdy comedy like Bridesmaids makes us laugh at virtually the same thing. The horror filmmaker exposes social and individual anxieties and puts the audience through a traumatic experience that ultimately makes the viewer feel better about it. Similarly, the comedian is a social critic who stands before the audience in an accusatory role and exposes the lunacy and hypocrisy around him.

In the context of this film series, United 93 showed us the devastation of terrorism, Osama frightened us with religion inspired oppression, and Taxi to the Dark Side startled us with its depiction of institutionalized torture. Four Lions invites us to laugh at this horror.

That isn't as morbid or crass as it sounds, in part because Four Lions gets its tone right. Although anything can be funny, not everything is funny in every way. The Holocaust does not suggest itself as a comedic topic and there is certainly nothing funny about films like The Reader or Schindler's List. But Life is Beautiful manages to set a comedy in a Nazi death camp and use the humor as a way to cope with the horror. Four Lions does the same with terrorism. The film plays up the absurd and finds laughs in the stupidity of the characters while also nodding at the human loss of the situation.

One of the more curious qualities of Four Lions is its regard for Muslims and Islam. In my blog post for Osama, I made mention of my concern that the 9/11 Film Series not encourage prejudice toward the Muslim community. That was also a concern for this film, but Four Lions makes a few subversive choices that undermine stereotypes. First is the depiction of Omar, played by Riz Ahmed, the leader of the would-be terrorist cell.  His home life is very Westernized; he wears western clothing and has a strong marriage and a loving relationship with his son. This comes in opposition to the expectation of a anti-Western, ultra-conservative misogynist. Second is the character of Barry, played by Nigel Lindsay, the most militant of the group, who constantly uses Islam and his identity as a jihadist to justify himself. He is by far the least sympathetic character in the film and his attempts to use Islam to assert his authority come across as shallow and asinine, to say the least. Both of these characters are in contrast to Ahmed, played by Wasim Zakir, Omar's brother and a devout Muslim. Ahmed tells Omar that his plans are not justified and he later invites his brother to come to a study group, an offer that Omar rejects. The point here is clear: neither Omar nor Barry represent Islam or other Muslims. In fact, they are not really interested in Islam at all.

This distinction between Omar and Barry on the one hand and Ahmed on the other takes a final turn in the film's conclusion. In a cross cut sequence, the group of terrorists commit to their final bombing plan while British police arrest Ahmed, which punctuates the absurdity not only of terrorism but also of law enforcement's response to it. And in the final coda, Ahmed is shown being interrogated by intelligence officers, leaving viewers with a final impression of sympathy for the one character in the film who was actually a Muslim in word and deed.

What Four Lions provides, both on its own but especially in the context of this film series, is an opportunity for an exasperated release both by the audience and by the filmmaker. The picture uses comedy to give us a way to cope with a subject that is fundamentally tragic. If the goal of the terrorist is to terrorize—that is, to cause fear—then laughing at them might be the most devastating retaliation of all.

Recommended Viewing:
Also - Check out this video of Four Lions director Chris Morris introducing the film and this particularly astute review of Four Lions by film critic Mark Kermode.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

9/11 Film Series: The Messenger

The 9/11 Film Series continued this evening with The Messenger, which tells the story of soldiers on a Casualty Notification Team.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, 9/11 is generally thought of as a unique and unprecedented event that disrupted and fundamentally changed the world. We can take that assumption as at least partially true, in that the events of 9/11 reshaped the way Americans view themselves and the world, and that turned into an imperative to rid the world of so-called "evil doers." From there America marched into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and along the way disrupted our own identity as absolute good fighting absolute evil. In the wake of the the destruction wrought upon us, as dramatized in United 93, and later having to face the results of the destruction we wrought in response, as documented in Restrepo and Taxi to the Dark Side, the culture and the individuals in it are placed in a vulnerable and uncertain place in which we have to redefine who we are and what we are doing.

And it is at this point in the 9/11 Film Series that we view This Messenger. This film continues the search for meaning in the post-9/11 (and post-Abu Ghraib) era and it dramatizes that search in the lives of the soldiers on a Casualty Notification Team and a widow of a recent casualty in the war. In The Messenger, that search is defined by the characters' interactions with each other and their gradual shift from isolation to companionship.

The Messenger uses a very realistic approach to its film making. Director Oren Moverman uses a lot of hand held cinematography, natural lighting, long cuts, and minimal music score. Yet, this is clearly a carefully assembled film. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster's characters are staged in separate shots or in opposing parts of the frame but gradually move together throughout the course of the film as their bond strengthens. The film uses a similar approach in the relationship between Foster and Samantha Morton's characters, as Foster starts out looking at her from a distance and gradually integrates himself into her life. That shift in frame is central to the film's underlying theme.

Although there are a number of terrific performances in The Messenger, it is in Ben Foster's role that the film dramatizes its central issue: what is a soldier to do when the fighting is over? Foster plays his role wonderfully; in the first act of the story his character is downright frightening. He is on a slow boil and the character's rage is palpable Foster's performance.

But over the course of The Messenger, Foster's character is changed and softened by the connections he establishes with Harrelson and Morton's characters and the pain he witnesses in his casualty notifications. Receiving compassion and engaging in it create the opportunity for all three of the lead characters to confront their losses and eventually come to some new level of consciousness. This development is illustrated in a subtle but cleverly placed image near the film's finale. Harrelson and Foster sit on a couch as Foster recounts his war experience while a television set across from them displays a tornado wiping out a group of homes. There are a number of ways to interpret that metaphor, but I'll suggest that this natural catastrophe mirrors what has happened to Foster's soul. His confession of survivor's guilt is in part due to living through a large destructive event whose causes and effects are larger than any one human being's ability to grasp. 

Without belaboring the point or sulking in melodrama, The Messenger explores the experience of soldiers returning from the war and more broadly asks what it means to live in the post-9/11 period. In the context of this film series, coming after after Restrepo and Taxi to the Dark Side, this film takes on added dimensions. But what The Messenger ultimately suggests is the possibility of hope through compassion and through love in all of its forms: romantic, platonic, familial, and brotherly.

Recommended Viewing:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

9/11 Film Series: Taxi to the Dark Side

Tonight's installment of the 9/11 Film Series was Taxi to the Dark Side, a documentary about the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by the United States.

I selected and organized the films in this series based on three questions: What happened on 9/11? What did we do in response? And what did that response do to us? This series began with the terror of the 9/11 attack as recreated in United 93 and the series continued with Osama, which dramatized the oppression of Afghanistan’s population by the Taliban. The documentary Restrepo focused on American soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Within the design of this series, that film begins to answer the second question—What did we do?—as the film documents soldiers engaging in firefights with the Taliban and their allies but also interacting with the local Afghan elders. Taxi to the Dark Side addresses that issue as well but it also starts to broach the final question: What did our response do to us?

In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee." This could very well be the thesis of the film.

There is a key image presented early on in Taxi to the Dark Side that sets up everything that that is to follow. The voice over explains that Abu Ghraib prison was notorious under Saddam Hussein's regime as a place for torture and the disposal of political enemies. This information is presented simultaneously with the image of a mural inside the prison depicting Saddam. The former Iraqi leader's face has been scratched off the wall and all that remains is his general visage. The mural looks very much like the stand-ups of famous characters often seen at theme parks and tourist traps, in which the head has been cut out and visitors stick their own faces inside for a photo. Later, as Taxi to the Dark Side features pictures of abused prisoners and American soldiers posing with them as though in a petting zoo or a frat party, the parallel is clear. Americans entered an atmosphere of abuse and became the new face of oppression.

Taxi the Dark Side establishes a connection between the brutality in these prisons and the action-adventure stories of 24 and similar programs. Blaming the media is an easy excuse and it is ridiculous to suggest that the adventures of Jack Bauer directly or unilaterally led to the activities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. But the repetition of images, namely the ticking bomb scenario and the use of pain to extract information, reinforced the idea that torture was in some way excusable or acceptable if the ends justified the means. This figures into the broader way 9/11 has been conceived and characterized in the popular imagination.

9/11 is generally viewed a freak incident without context or precedent, an attack on an innocent America by a group of evil thugs. Most film adaptations of the attack hold up this image, at least partly. In United 93, the passengers aboard the flight are innocents who act heroically in the face of fear. Similarly, Osama characterizes the Taliban as irredeemably corrupt. While this may be true, this characterization sets up a good and evil binary. And that binary grants America and our allies the moral high ground and a monopoly on goodness.

With the trauma of 9/11 still aching in our hearts and operating under the supposition of inherent virtue, America marched blindly toward a moral precipice. As one of the guards notes in the documentary, they were encouraged to view the prisoners as less than human. And when the prisoners were believed to be evil, inhuman terrorists who were (in the minds of the guards and the American public) at least tangentially connected to 9/11, it did not matter what was done to them. In this situation, good people are capable of the greatest evil because their moral compass is turned off.

What is probably most important to take from Taxi the Dark Side, which will haunt this country for some time, is what it reveals about how our response to 9/11 affected us politically and militarily but also morally. After watching the abyss of horrors of United 93 and Osama, that abyss begins to stare back at us in Taxi the Dark Side.

Recommended Viewing:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

9/11 Film Series: Restrepo

Tonight's installment of the 9/11 Film Series was Restrepo, a documentary about soldiers stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.

Restrepo was co-directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Heatherington. Junger is a correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine and he collected his observations in the book War, which was released simultaneously with this film. Heatherington was a cinematographer and photojournalist and he had cooperated with Junger on a forthcoming book called Infidel. Sadly, Tim Heatherington was recently killed while reporting on the recent uprising in Libya.

In documentary filmmaking, the style is often described in one of two ways: objective and subjective. Subjective documentaries are told from a clear point of view and often employ narration and other techniques to present the subject from a specific perspective. The films of Michael Moore such as Sicko and Roger and Me are popular examples of subjective documentaries. These are pictures with a clear thesis that is usually stated early on in the picture.

Objective documentaries are generally told with a more ambiguous perspective. They often employ a cinema verite style, presenting the subject with a minimal amount of editorial intrusion. Vernon, Florida, directed by Errol Morris, and Hearts and Minds, directed by Peter Davis, are examples. Like subjective documentaries, these films do seek to present a truth about their subject but the truth of an objective documentary film tends to unfold over the course of the film’s running time; the truth or message of an objective documentary is found in the sum of its parts rather than in a specific thesis elucidated in the opening.

Restrepo is told in an objective documentary style. And like many films that use this approach, Restrepo can be confusing or overwhelming. Much of today's cinema--both dramatic and documentary--mico-manage the viewer's experience with voice overs that tells us exactly how to think and music cues and editing choices that tell us how to feel. The absence of that kind of direction can be challenging to an audience that is accustomed to it. This is a film that requires a viewer to engage with the piece, to think about the content and how images and sounds are juxtaposed together.

Restrepo is bookended by testimonies of the soldiers in charge at the post. In the pre-title sequence, Captain Dan Kearney admits that he did not do any research on the Korengal Valley before arriving there but that he was determined to go into the area and, in his words, "fix it." In the film's final sequence, as the soldier's vacate the valley, First Sergeant LaMonta Caldwell says "We've done our job. We did what we were supposed to be doing. And we're out of here." It is in the juxtaposition of those statements with what happens in between them that Restrepo is most revealing.

War is often described as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. That cliche fits the portrayal of war in Restrepo; although the film is not boring it does have a cyclical construction. The middle of the film is a repetition of patrols and occasional firefights, the establishment and reinforcement of the operating post, and the meetings with the Afghan elders. What is most apparent by the end is that, despite the effort, the sacrifice, and the casualties, nothing has been accomplished. That point is punctuated by the text displayed before the end credits, informing the viewer that the Korengal Valley was later abandoned by the United States military.

Restrepo was released in 2010, which is curious because that year had one of the highest casualty rates for US forces in Afghanistan since we entered the country after the 9/11 attack but the year 2010 also featured the least amount of coverage of the war from the mainstream press. And, among the film's other attributes, that is part of what makes Restrepo extraordinary and exceptional. Despite all of the time and resources dedicated to Afghanistan and in spite of the extent to which daily life around the world is documented and disseminated, this film is one of the only significant pieces of documentary cinema to come out of the conflict.

Recommended Viewing:

Monday, September 12, 2011

9/11 Film Series: Osama

The 9/11 Film Series continued tonight with Osama.

Osama was released in 2003 and it was the first Afghani film to be released after the fall of the Taliban. The actors were not professional performers and a lot of them lived in the city of Kabul, where Osama was filmed. And since it was shot in 2002 the film literally captured life in Afghanistan just after the Taliban had vacated the premises. This gives the film a great deal of authenticity and authority.

This film series was based on three questions: What happened on 9/11? What did we do in response? And what did our response do to us? United 93 began this series by providing a vision of the events of September 11th, 2001 and allowing us the opportunity to re-experience the fear and confusion of that day. I selected Osama as the follow up to that film because I see it as an important companion piece.

In the past few days I’ve heard a lot of people saying things like “We will never forget” about the events of September 11th, 2001. While remembering is important, what we remember and how we remember are also important. In the book 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration, David Simpson writes that the September 11th attack “has been widely presented as an interruption of the deep rhythms of cultural time, a cataclysm simply erasing what was there rather than evolving from anything already in place, and threatening a yet more monstrous future. It appeared as an unforeseen eruption across the path of a history commonly deemed rooted in a complacent steady-state progressivism.” To put that more simply, what Simpson means is that in most people’s minds, 9/11 does not have a precedent or a context. It is viewed as a freak event.

When we think of 9/11 we also tend to imagine it as an American event. That’s understandable since it did after all take place on American soil and most of the victims were American citizens. And as a result of that perception, 9/11 is understood not only as an attack on New York and DC but as an attack on all of us. And in the weeks and months that followed 9/11 there was a terrific sense of unity among the American people. However, that unity was limited. There was also a steep rise in hate crimes and harassment of the Muslim community or of people who fit some kind of general, broad profile.

When a group of people are attacked, they tend to circle the wagons and everyone inside the circle is considered an ally, no matter what divisions and rivalries existed previously, and those outside the circle are viewed with suspicion if not outright antagonism. That has serious consequences because the wartime mentality makes empathy for those outside of our circle increasingly difficult. After 9/11, this dualistic mind set took hold among the general American public who were traumatized by the attack but it also threatens to characterize the Muslim community if they feel persecuted and ostracized. And in that case dialogue goes down and tension goes up. This is where a film like Osama becomes so important.

I heard a wonderful quote from (of all sources) last summer’s action movie Captain America in which Stanley Tucci’s character says, “People forget the first country the Nazi’s invaded was their own.” I think that’s a great phrase because it makes a distinction between Nazism, which is a specific ideology and political movement, and the German people.

Similarly, we could say that the first people attacked by groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban were other Muslims. And if we think of 9/11 not just as an American event or as a historical aberration but as an outgrowth of ongoing and shared history between cultures, we find that the victims and survivors of Osama aren’t that different from the victims and survivors of United 93. And in that case maybe the first victims of 9/11 were not in New York but in Kabul.

Recommended Viewing

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Film Series: United 93

Tonight began the 9/11 Film Series on the Winona State University campus with a screening of United 93.

United 93 is not the only film dramatization about the attack. In fact, there have been at least nine films dramatizing the events of September 11th and of those, four have focused on the events aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Yet, United 93 is distinct among them. Although it is a dramatization, the film has a great deal of detail that makes it a mergence of dramatic and documentary filmmaking.

First, the cast includes a number of real-life participants playing themselves. Ben Sliney, the FAA's National Operations Manager, plays himself as do other FAA officials. Several civilian air traffic controllers in the Newark control tower also play themselves and the pilots and stewardesses aboard Flight 93 are played by real life airline pilots and flight attendants. In the scenes at the Northeast Air Defense Command Center, most of the military personnel are played by real-life military air traffic controllers, including Major James Fox who was in the command center on September 11th.

Second, because a few years passed between the event and the making of United 93, the filmmakers were able to reference the 9/11 Commission Report as well as other reporting on the event to recreate the details as fully as possible. This film also incorporates news footage from that day.

Lastly, the film was made in cooperation with the surviving family members of those aboard Flight 93 who were able to provide personal details about the passengers. In fact, proceeds from United 93's theatrical run were donated to funding a memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

United 93 was released in 2006 after some controversy. A few theaters pulled the trailer after complaints and production of the film was criticized for fear that it would exploit the tragedy. There is an important point to be taken from that criticism; filmmakers don’t want to be perceived as ambulance chasers.

However, two questions should be asked of the “it’s too soon” criticism:
  1. What are we waiting for?
  2. When will it be time to make films about this?
It would seem that we are waiting for a point of perspective from which we can say something interesting and relevant about the attack. The passage of time cools the passions both for the filmmaker and for the audience and allows the emotional and intellectual space for a more reasoned perception on the events, so waiting to make a film is reasonable.

But the real issue is not so much time as it is substance. Filmmakers must have a vision of what they wish to accomplish and the film ought to be evaluated on the quality and substance of that vision and how well it is achieved on screen.

This raises two additional points. First is how United 93 functions for the viewer. Although it may seem like a strange comparison, United 93 plays very much like a horror film. Just like a ghost story or a slasher film, United 93 puts the audience through a controlled trauma. By watching this film we are able to re-experience the fear of that moment and study both the attack and our reactions to it. And by (re)experiencing the awfulness from the safety of a theater seat, we are given an opportunity to come to grips with what happened and start to deal with it.

This leads to my second point, which is that it is important for filmmakers and other artists to engage with 9/11. There is an analogy to be made between what happened to the culture on September 11, 2001 and what happens to an individual after a traumatic event. If the anxieties and fears resulting from the trauma are not dealt with, they are likely to manifest themselves in other ways, possibly in negative or self-destructive forms. If these unresolved feelings are left unchecked it is quite possible that they form new prejudices or amplify existing ones, as evidenced by the intolerance faced by the Muslim community, or lead to a derailment of our critical faculties, as evidenced by the mainstream media’s compliance with the invasion of Iraq. When films, of whatever genre or style, deal honestly for these themes and issues, they offer the possibility—not the promise but the possibility—of moving the viewers toward an understanding of what 9/11 means.

There are two dominant themes in United 93 that suggest the film's take on 9/11. The first is the subversion of a complex system (the aviation system) by the actions of the terrorists, the establishment's inability to cope with that subversion, and the initiative of a few individuals who take matters into their own hands in order to solve the problem. In that, United 93 is a very American story and the picture reaffirms the values of independence, sacrifice, and individuality that are deeply rooted in American history.

The other dominant theme of United 93 is the contrast of the ancient with the modern. Prayers are uttered throughout the film both by the terrorists and by the passengers while technology transmits final messages to loved ones. Airliners, which represent the conquest of man's technology over the vastness of geography, are used as a weapon of mass death. The terrorists use crude edged weapons to take over a complex piece of transportation and the passengers similarly use brute force in their revolt. One of the final images of United 93 is a frantic struggle by various pairs of hands for control of the wheel of the airplane. That juxtaposition of imagery suggests that 9/11 represented a clash of the ancient and the modern and the age that the attack ushered in would be defined by conflicts over whether ancient or modern hands would steer humanity into the future.

United 93 is being presented as a part of a series. But this picture is an important first step in that it reminds us of the fear and chaos of that day and provides a metaphor for the larger conflict that would define the decade to come.

Recommended Viewing: