The problem with the United 93 films.

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April 27 2006 11:58 AM

Hijacking the Hijacking

The problem with the United 93 films.

United 93. Click image to expand.
Universal's United 93 

Don't get me wrong, I'm in awe of what the passengers on United's hijacked Flight 93 managed to do on 9/11. Everyone knows the basic outline, although the details are necessarily conjectural: With the help of cell-phone contact from friends and relatives on the ground, the passengers figured out the hijackers had no "demands" to negotiate but rather were on a suicide mission similar to the ones that had just crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Somehow, it appears, they took action to thwart that goal, sacrificing themselves to save hundreds, even thousands, of lives in the target city (Washington, D.C.)—action that forced the plane to crash into an empty field in Pennsylvania, leaving no survivors but a near-mythic legacy.

Flight 93. Click image to expand.
A&E's Flight 93 

Nothing can take away from that collective act of heroism, but something makes me wonder: Why is this the third film made about Flight 93? I've watched them all: There was last year's Discovery Channel docudrama The Flight That Fought Back. Then there was this year's A&E cable re-enactment, Flight 93, directed by one of George W. Bush's college classmates (coincidence?). And now the major new Hollywood feature United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass. 

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When the controversy over the trailer for the new film erupted recently, the question was, "Is it too soon?" I wonder if the question should be, "Are there too many?"

Could it be that the three films are a symptom of our addiction to fables of redemptive uplift that shield us from the true dimensions of the tragedy? Redemptive uplift: It's the official religion of the media, anyway. There must be a silver lining; it's always darkest before the dawn; the human spirit will triumph over evil; there must be a pony.

That's always been the subtextual spiritual narrative of media catastrophe coverage: terrible human tragedy, but something good always can be found in it to affirm faith and hope and make us feel better. Plucky, ordinary human beings find a way to rise above the disaster. Man must prevail. The human spirit is resilient, unconquerable. Did I mention there must be a pony?

9/11 is no different. Flight 93 has become 9/11's pony. The conjectural response to the hijacking has become (even more than the courage of the rescuers in the rubble) the redemptive fable we cling to, the fragment we shore against our ruin. Or so it is as envisioned in The Flight That Fought Back and Flight 93 and now United 93. A film in which, we are told by its production notes, we see "the courage that was born from … the crucible" of 9/11. A story of "something much larger than the event itself," Greengrass tells us, a story in which "we … find wisdom." One almost hears the subtext: This is "the feel-good film about 9/11."

To question this is not meant to take anything away from the heroism of the passengers on Flight 93. (Although to imply that they were the only ones who displayed courage in the face of the events of that day is to slight the cops and firefighters who rushed into the Twin Towers, many of whom never returned alive.)

Still, the director makes a case that, even more than the "first responders," the Flight 93 passengers were the first to recognize and confront the barbarism of al-Qaida, "the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world," the first to discover the "shape [of] something larger than the event itself—the DNA of our times," Greengrass—who seems to want to control the response of the first responders to his film—tells us.

But is the fable of Flight 93 the recompense that it's been built up to be? Does what happened on Flight 93 represent a triumph of the human spirit, a microcosmic model and portent of the ultimate victory of enlightenment civilization over theocratic savagery, as the prerelease publicity about the new film insists? Or is the story of United Flight 93 a different kind of portent, not "the DNA of our times," but rather the RIP?

I guess it depends on your definition, your threshold of uplift. Yes, it appears from the cockpit recordings recently released that something noble—a passenger uprising that disrupted the hijackers' plans—happened on that flight. But is it possible to separate it out from the other events of the day? In three out of four cases savage mass murderers prevailed. A "war on terror" has ensued; a war in Iraq followed. In neither case is it clear that the outcome is going to be favorable. The story of 9/11 as a whole increasingly seems a portent that Flight 93 was an aberration, and that those intent on suicidal martyrdom may well prevail over those who value human life over holy books. This possibility is something no one likes to dwell on, and in that sense the "triumphant" fable of Flight 93, genuinely heroic as it is, represents a comforting diversion. There must be a pony.

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