On the 5th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, United 93 and World Trade Centre have reached our screens but what purpose have these movies in telling these events?
The context of each movie and the scale of the commentary each makes on the events of 9/11 are somewhat paradoxical. World Trade Centre is set amidst the heart of the disaster; it fleets to different spots on the globe as the events unfold, sees marines return to duty and sees the main protagonists entombed in what was to become Ground Zero where Bush was to make a pledge for vengeance days later. However in this movie, Stone proposes no theory behind events, does not accord blame, Bush is glimpsed fleetingly on a TV screen and terrorism barely earns a mention. You are dragged into the raw reality of the moments of crisis and claustrophobic waiting endured by the men and their families. Equally, United 93 tells an intimate story, the real life events have no footage or monumental destruction to commemorate their tragedy. It is a story of heroes so the movie has no time for who or why this blind fear and tragedy has struck the nation, it must simply be dealt with.
World Trade Centre is the far more melodramatic of the two but not unnecessarily so. It would be easy to disregard it as over sentimental theatrics. However, these are the moments in life when we are stretched and when the luggage we carry around unnecessarily with us every day has to be forgotten. This is when you get to talk in Hallmark abstracts about human nature because these are the times when it flourishes. Maybe at the offset you will flinch or grimace at the sight of an officer returning to the police department, a trail of tears running a river through his dusty face. But spend the rest of the movie gasping for air with the men and step back from all that has happened since. 9/11 has come to mean so much more than the events of a day. The attacks have been drowned out by the war on terror, WMD inspections, failed UN resolutions and airport security checks. If we are going to do justice to the victims or somehow try to portray what happened on the day then give it the respect it deserves. Bush-bashing and fervent reminders of the countless undocumented loss of life elsewhere has its place but it should not be used for mudslinging to undermine a reminder of what people went through.
United 93 strives for the same effect but is an entirely different creature. There is no glazed cinematography or stylistic director trademarks. There are no establishing shots revering New York offering any sort of numbing agent for what you know is to come. The camera keeps you level with the people aboard the plane, the air traffic controllers and officials dealing with the crisis from outside. I have talked before about movies serving as a means of escapism but this movie traps you right to the dieing moments of the last shot. You meet the hijackers, you almost get to know them better than the other passengers, sharing in their anxiety and watching them say goodbye to their families. There is no relief or let up, each scene progresses so that you feel more tense and uneasy. How many other films can instil such dread when we have known the ending for 5 years?
Both movies admirably shoulder the responsibility they are laden with. There was no option to base the film closely on the facts or play with the truth. Equally though in constructing the story they wanted to tell, these filmmakers have had to dip into a story half told, or really we don’t know what percentage we’ve seen. In choosing how to depict what we know, they have clung to the one definite in all of this- people are resilient and in all of our uncertainty, if we can't know for sure what matters what we always have is what we do. The people caught up in this ill-fated day did well. We shouldn’t need such a crisis to shock us into being decent whole people.