The biggest surprise on the morning of the Academy Award nominations was the inclusion of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in the nine nominees for Best Picture. Critics have universally derided the 9/11 drama, becoming the lowest critically rated Best Picture nominee in the last 30 years, according to some awards pundits. The second lowest rated Best Picture nominee in that same span of time? The Reader, also directed by Stephen Daldry. Under new Academy voting rules, a nominee has to garner at least five percent of first place votes on members’ ballots. That means that at least 250 Academy members voted this crass, manipulative, off-putting, wrongheaded, exploitative movie as the best film of the year, thereby voluntarily divulging they must not have seen a single other movie for 2011.
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) was nine years old when his father, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), was killed on September 11, 2001. He was in one of the World Trade Center buildings and left six frantic phone messages before perishing. In the ensuing months after the disaster, Oskar is lashing out against his mother (Sandra Bullock) who spends all day in bed. Then one day he discovers a mysterious key in his father’s closet inside an envelope labeled “Black.” Oskar’s father used to send his son on a series of adventures around New York, looking for a fabled “sixth borough,” forcing Oskar to confront his numerous fears and insecurities. Oskar looks through the New York phone book and catalogs over 400 separate people with the last name of Black in the five boroughs. He’s convinced that his father has left one last hidden message somewhere in the city.
My main sticking point was that I found Oskar to be an insufferable, bratty, little jerk. I understand he’s hurting and he’s trying to work through his pain. I understand he is gripped by irrational fears and has a hard time relating to others. I understand that Oskar’s father even tested him for Asperger’s, though the results were negative. Some people will try and explain away Oskar’s callous behavior in sweeping generalizations having to do with the ignorance of children or some undiagnosed medical problem. I’ve known people with Asperger’s syndrome and while Oskar fits a few of the superficial tics, being a jerk is not a symptom, sorry. He’s so mean to his grieving mother and indifferent about other people that I wanted to slap him. I found him to be unsympathetic and wholly irritating. I found his unsupervised journeys for cutesy quests throughout New York City to be dubious. His parents just let their ten-year-old socially awkward kid run around New York City by himself at all hours? The movie goes in a bad direction when it partners this talky nuisance up with a silent old man, played by the wonderful Max von Sydow (the movie’s only other Oscar nomination; another stretch I’d say).
Here’s a breakdown of my thought process: Oskar comes home on 9/11 to find the last recorded messages of his father, including an admission of love for his family. Oskar runs out and buys an identical answering machine and sneakily hides the original, denying his mother, a grieving widow, the chance to hear her husband’s voice one last time. Screw that kid. I’m sorry but that’s what went through my mind and to me he never recovered. His actions are inexcusable. Then he gets mad because his mom sleeps all day. She’s grieving you little snot! And then he has the gall to tell her, “I wish it was you instead!” It’s a moment intended to draw gasps, ripping the scab clear off whatever pretensions mother and son have with one another. But it just made me dislike the kid even more. The fact that even by the film’s ending emotional catharsis Oskar still hasn’t shared the answering machine messages with his mother is reprehensible.
The other factor that caused me to despise the main character was how Horn proves to be a dreadful actor. This is the first acting role for the former teen Jeopardy champ. He’s able to spit the rapid-fire, idiosyncratic dialogue burdened with cumbersome detail. However, Horn gives a terribly mannered performance. He has this annoying manner of over enunciating every single word, getting lost in a character affectation, always stagy and artificial. You combine a bad actor with an aggravating character and make them the lead of the story, and I’m already daydreaming possible murder scenarios (I don’t condone child murder mind you — I’d make it look like an accident). As for Oskar’s parents, Hanks is hardly in the movie and Bullock does shockingly well, nailing her most emotional moments. I’d rather see this movie from her point of view, trying to make sense of the insensible to her challenging son who hates her.
Daldry wishes to use the backdrop of 9/11 to talk about important items. It’s too bad that his movie has nothing legitimate to say about healing. I was assuming that over the course of the film Oskar was going to run into a diverse collection of people, all healing, all with their own stories of pain, and then he would learn that the real treasure was the community of strangers he had brought together. Nope! Oskar runs into a gamut of fine actors, including Viola Davis, John Goodman, and Jeffrey Wright, but they all become mere baton-passers to a self-involved kid. They and their stories don’t matter. The lock to our missing key doesn’t matter. There’s a final revelation concerning Oskar’s mother and her activities to benefit her son that seems entirely implausible. Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Curious Case of Benjamin Button) have transformed Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about collective grief into a strangely myopic narrative given the scale of the suffering.
The movie is so transparently manipulative, shamelessly exploiting 9/11 anxieties and trauma to tell its intolerable little quest. In no way is 9/11 meaningfully connected with the overall story of loss. Oskar’s father could just have readily died in a war or had a brain aneurism. What 9/11 is used for, however, is an easy device to stir the audience’s emotions. Daldry will flash back to it at seemingly random moments in the narrative, to goose the audience into feeling gloomy. I’m sure many people will sit through this movie and feel moments of genuine sadness, but that’s because the filmmakers are shamelessly manipulating the raw feelings we have over a national tragedy. It’s hard not to feel a lump in your throat seeing the towers smoking, frantic calls to missing or doomed loved ones, and final recordings bearing the weight of compounded dread. It’s not too soon to talk about the psychic wounds of that terrible day but I strongly resent people who exploit those memories. There are moments that are so misguided and yet given the Hollywood gloss of an awards-bait picture. The very opening image is of Tom Hanks free-falling to his death. Oskar’s little picture book he constructs at the end of his journey includes a final page with the World Trade Center. And there’s a little slip that when pulled creates a picture of a man falling up back into the tower. What? Is that supposed to be a good thing?
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is such a misguided, crass venture that’s also extremely shameless and incredibly cloying. The main character is unlikable, exasperating, and portrayed by a rather amateurish child actor. Daldry’s hackneyed direction will settle on treacle and contrived sentiment whenever possible, but the emotions never feel properly earned. He’s pressing buttons and forcing tears, and several viewers will be unaware of how efficiently they were manipulated into having a moving experience at the theater. I know I can’t be alone is seeing through the manipulation and feeling indignant about the ordeal. I’m not against tackling the difficult subject of 9/11 in movies (I declared United 93 the best film of 2006). Here’s a good question for you filmgoers out there: is there that big of a difference between this movie and 2010’s unpleasant teen drama, Remember Me? Both use the 9/11 attacks to cover narrative and characterization deficiencies, vulgarly exploiting our feelings of the events to engender feeling, and both don’t belong anywhere near an awards stage.
Nate’s Grade: C-
How much time do we give before our memories are used as unnecessary and cheap dramatic ploys to wring out tears? Remember Me will test your sensibilities on what should be classified as art and what should be designated as hacky, shameless exploitation.
Tyler Hawkins (Robert Pattinson) is a troubled 21-year-old college student in New York City. He’s mostly estranged from his rich, distant father (Pierce Brosnan). Tyler’s older brother hanged himself five years earlier, and that personal tragedy still lingers. Tyler quotes poetry, writes letters to his dead brother, and has his share of run-ins with the police. Sergeant Neil Craig (Chris Cooper) busts Tyler and his friend (Tate Ellington, mostly annoying) one night after the duo tries to clear up a brawl. Then the boys discover that the sergeant’s daughter, Ally (Lost‘s Emilie de Ravin) also attends their college. They devise a sketchy means of getting even: Tyler will date Ally. A subway mugger killed her mother when she was 9 years old, so the two bond over family misfortune. He asks her out for dinner and she appears cautious, but it isn’t long before love is in the air. Dad doesn’t approve but that won’t stop Ally from spending time with her special someone. Suddenly Tyler is vulnerable and coming out of his shell. It looks like things might work out though you don?t really comprehend why, then things take a sudden turn and very much do not work out. More details on that plot development later.
Remember Me does not work for many reasons, but as designed, it was never going to work. Allow me to go into greater analysis, which will naturally unleash a horde of spoilers concerning the film’s conclusion.
This movie will not work; in fact it refuses to work from a conceptual standpoint. The story seems retrofitted to lead directly to the ending. Screenwriter Will Fetters seems to have followed the M. Night Shyamalan approach to screenwriting and come up with a twist ending and worked backwards. You see dear reader, the film climaxes on a day burned into the memories of everyone who lived through it — September 11, 2001. The movie plays coy with its timeline the whole time, never drawing too much attention to its exact setting. Tyler even goes to see American Pie 2 to lift his spirits, and who besides people who are crazy about film release dates would know that was released back in August 2001? There’s also a jump forward of ten years from the murder of Ally’s mother in 1991, but that’s the last time the movie ever reminds you about time. Instead, it makes sure that all the pieces will be in place so that Tyler will be standing on the 90th floor of the World Trade Center, looking off into the horizon for the last day. Fetters’ story uses a national trauma as a dramatic tragedy for his doomed lovers. But here’s the thing: anything else would have worked the same. Did Tyler really have to die in the 9/11 attacks? Could he not have had an accident, gotten mugged, hit by a car, or any number of other missteps that would have the same effect? The emphasis isn’t on the relationship of 9/11 to the characters; 9/11 just serves as the event to wipe out one half of our relationship. But any other event would have resulted in the same effect without coming across as so icky and exploitative. The movie does not work because it’s designed as a ?gotcha? ending but the only “gotcha” is that 9/11 is shamefully used to spin this illusion that Remember Me is meaningful and transcendent.
The other half of this argument could go as such: Fetters was trying to tell but one tale of the many that lost their lives on 9/11, illuminating the fantastic human toll and how each number was a person with a family and friends that will forever miss them. That would have been sufficient. Hollywood and the cinema have a history of taking national tragedies and showcasing individuals who were lost. I even declared United 93, the docu-drama painstakingly detailing the final moments aboard that downed airline, the best film of 2006, and four years later I still stand by that declaration. Artists can take collective pain and showcase triumph and substance, allowing us a cathartic means for therapy and working through trauma. I believe with every fiber of my being that art has the power to heal and elucidate.
However, Remember Me is not that kind of art. If Fetters had a strong desire to showcase one of the lives lost that horrific day, that’s a noble effort. But the drama of Remember Me is stagnant and suffused with stereotypes and one-note characters bumbling around, uncertain what exactly they should be doing. It almost seems like everyone is simply waiting for the Big Event at the end, and that in itself is disquieting. The character dynamics of this movie couldn’t get more cliché. This sloppy, overcooked weepie has the Bad Boy and you know he?s troubled because he has stubble and smokes. Pattinson also spends 80 percent of his screen time looking forlorn. I’m sorry, but looking off screen and being forlorn are not replacements for good character development. He’s lost a brother and he?s mad at his distant, workaholic father, but you might as well describe him as Boy. That’s pretty much his extent in this film. His love interest could equally be named simply Girl. The two have a shared history of family tragedy, but then what? Do we learn anything about Ally as a person, about what draws her to Tyler (besides that haircut, of course), or how her life is made more whole thanks to the brooding bad boy? No. It would be generous to even refer to these characters as archetypes. They are characters in name only. Fetters has cobbled an equation that simply boils down to Boy + troubled past + Girl + troubled past = perfect future. Even worse, their whirlwind courtship feels like it exists in some movie world where gazes and hugs substitute for the excitement of romance, of feeling out the interested party and becoming overwhelmed with the sheer possibility of a relationship. This is only a love story from a the standpoint of that equation. You never believe for a second that anybody matters because they only feel like puppets meant to go through the motions until the film reaches its anvil of a climax. Then, you see, we’re supposed to feel because there is death, except I didn?t see any convincing signs of life beforehand.
The rest of the story is awash with bizarre and mostly lame elements meant to heighten the ensemble drama. For whatever reason, Tyler’s friend coaxes him into initially dating Ally as a contrived means of sticking it to her father. This tiny yet stupid hurdle will of course be revisited when the film’s second act break comes calling. But why does this past run-in even matter? Romantic comedies have all sorts of plots where the couple begins their time together through some duplicitous guise, and of course the truth drops just as guy and girl are starting to really like one another. But in Remember Me it isn’t a bet or something nefarious that brings boy and girl together. If anything, the run-in with dad could be seen as an introduction. The “get revenge” idea isn’t something that’s ever revisited by Tyler or his friend, nor do they at any point provide further detail. It remains a vague notion from beginning to end.
Then there’s Tyler’s own family drama. The strangest plot addition is when Tyler’s younger sister attends a birthday party. It is at this birthday party that a cohort of mean girls gives Caroline Hawkins an unflattering makeover. This bad haircut is then played for ridiculous dramatic overkill. Everyone around the kid is speaking in hushed tones, trembling, recollecting as a family unit, and pretty much acting like Caroline had been molested when, at worst, she got her hair cut by some mean girls. Tyler even escorts his kid sis to school and almost decks one of the little girls responsible, instead choosing to huff and puff in her face like a raging bull. I guess when you’re Pattinson and a good third of your acting comes from your haircut, you take follicle care very seriously.
Remember Me is so anxious to be poetic. It’s not. It’s pedantic and faux intellectual. It wants to be a moving romance. It?s not. It?s two pretty but bland characters that just seem to play around furniture and eventually do it. They’re as interesting as bland pretty people usually are in these things. It wants to be a significant drama that manages to say something big. It’s not. It’s a slapdash effort revolving entirely around the eventual reveal of a “gotcha” ending that does nothing to justify all the strained spinning. At best, the ending is in poor taste and a cheap trick to gin up sympathy and give the impression of substance. At worst, it’s ugly exploitation that reduces a national tragedy into a last-ditch effort to cover the empathetic deficiencies of a lackluster drama. Flogging national suffering to make an audience feel for your bland characters after an empty 100 minutes? That’s offensive. Remember Me isn’t worth any outrage. It?s a pretty but mostly empty venture designed around a twist. It is anything but worth remembering, even in disgust.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Best-selling author Nicholas Sparks is probably a perfectly reasonable human being. I’m sure he’s great at parties and that people love him. He may even have a dynamite recipe for sugar cookies. But I don’t know what happened to Sparks to turn him into the romance genre’s angel of death. His novels have followed a familiar practice of big Third Act deaths that usually deny readers their cherished happy endings. Is the motive to push people to make the most of our preciously little time spent on Earth? Is Sparks just sadistic and has found the secret to eternal life — the tears of millions of housewives and teenager girls. Whatever his rationale, another commonality for Sparks is that the film adaptations of his books are pretty corny and dreadful. A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe, Message in a Bottle; all about romance ultimately denied, none coming close to watchable. Dear John can at least be called watchable; however, watching should be limited to the confines of your living room TV when there’s nothing else on.
It’s the spring of 2001, and John Tyree (Channing Tatum) is enjoying his two-week leave from the military. He’s out surfing the fine North Carolina beaches when he rescues the handbag of Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) from being washed away. They two of them casually chat and soon those chats lead to barbecue invitations, parental visits, and kisses in the rain (a romantic movie tradition). Savannah takes an interest in John’s eccentric father (Richard Jenkins) because she recognizes his condition as autism. She’s been helping to watch her neighbor’s autistic child. Savannah would like to start her own horse camp for the autistic (sounds like an insurance nightmare). Life seems so full of promise and John promises to be back as soon as his military commitment expires in six months. Then 9/11 happens. John re-enlists and extends his tour another two years. This places great strain on his relationship with Savannah, but they write each other countless letters that manage to find John no matter what far-flung village he’s stationed at. Can their love exists on a series of hand-written letters? Well, look no further than the classic implications from the film’s title.
Dear John goes through all the traditional Nicholas Sparks waterworks trademarks: young love leads to yearning, which leads to heartbreak, which leads to more yearning, which then inevitably leads toward one of the leads dying and everyone learning some sort of shallow profound meaning about life, blah blah blah. There are plenty of heightened melodramatic elements thrown into a fairly traditional, unspectacular love story, but all potent potential moments of drama feel underwhelming pretty much because the audience doesn’t care. John and Savannah are perfectly nice people and their love has that hopeful bloom, but their relationship is no more involving than watching a pretend couple in a commercial for greeting cards or life insurance. These people are vanilla. It makes it astounding, then, that such highly charged elements like cancer autism, and 9/11 fail to leave any impact. Dear John confuses listing dramatic events as drama itself. The dramatic stakes feel entirely too mellow and the film generally has a detached feeling, like it’s purposely distanced from the material for fear of getting too involved. This is a relationship movie that has its own commitment issues.
The military angle is respectfully explored, though not in much depth. John is torn apart by the pull of returning to his beloved but also of serving his country and, more personally, keeping his band of brothers in arms together. It’s a complicated scenario but the military commitment is another item in a list that should grab your interest but fail to do so. 9/11 isn’t given any deeper consideration other than the fact that it serves as a roadblock between our two lovebirds. If you want to see a more nuanced, complicated, and empathetic view of today’s overburdened military, check out the movie Stop-Loss, which also stars Tatum.
The film drops any facade of being a romantic drama about midway through when Seyfried gets completely sidelined. She’s less a character and more an agreeable plot device; she’s self-aware and kind and knowing and receptive yet also naive. This makes her sudden character shift rather jarring, which seemingly paints Savannah as extremely co-dependant. Dear John then transforms into a serviceable father/son drama. There are some nice and moving moments between John and his father; this should have been the real focal point of the movie. Jenkins acts circles around everybody in this movie. It’s wonderful seeing a grown-up in these kind of movies show the kids ho this acting thing is done. Tatum actually might become a pretty good actor. He convincingly plays the more emotional moments well. He may very well prove to be the Patrick Swayze of his generation. Tatum can dance (Step Up), make the girls cry, and also handle some rock-socking action (G.I. Joe, Fighting, most of Tatum’s other movies). I think there’s an actor buried beneath that daunting physique waiting to blossom. Don’t disappoint me, Channing.
Dear John is a formulaic romance trained to seek pre-programmed audience responses (“Now you will laugh. Now you will cry. Now you will cry again. Now you will once again continue to cry…”). Lasse Halstrom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Cassanova) directed this movie but you’d never be able to notice. I don’t want to be too harsh on the film because the acting is pleasant the story isn’t repulsive and does have some good moments, but mostly the movie comes across as bland and remote. The romance seems absent a beating heart to keep things moving. It’s all too lifeless. The character of Savannah best summarizes Dear John as a whole: mild pretense of wisdom, pretty to look at, genial, but fairly bland and difficult to convince is worth your valuable time.
Nate’s Grade: C
Why? That’s likely to be the question on many people’s minds when this documentary concludes. Why did effete Frenchman Philippe Petit decide to walk on a tight rope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974? Why devote an entire feature-length documentary to a subject that seems pretty limited? Well, Man on Wire is certainly an engaging film; amusingly, director James Marsh structures the flick like a heist movie, where we watch Petit assemble his team and practice his stunt. There is a sense of beauty watching a man balance on a wire hundreds of feet above the ground. The film also has colorfully French characters to fill in the details on how they pulled off the “artistic crime of the century.” Of course any modern art dealing with the World Trade Center is given new meaning, and Man on Wire is aided by added poignancy of watching the building construction and then the daring feats of Petit. I confess, though, that I’m dumbstruck at this movie being declared the finest documentary of 2008. It’s a good movie, sure, but not even the fourth best documentary I’ve seen in a doc-heavy year. The footage of Man on Wire is more amazing than the story behind how it happened.
Nate’s Grade: B
Adam Sandler in a serious drama? Well it worked in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, but that was aided by Paul Thomas Anderson deconstructing the typical Sandler goofball in his glut of crude yet successful comedies. Can Sandler work his thespian skills in a story not tailor-made for him? I think writer/director Mike Binder’s 9/11 human drama, Reign Over Me, is proof that Sandler can step outside his popular persona for a worthy cause. But this movie isn’t it.
Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is an ordinary dentist living his family life in Manhattan. Then one day he spots his old college roommate, Charlie Fineman (Sandler), zipping along on an electric scooter. He looks drastically different than Alan remembers, and this is because Charlie’s wife and children, and even his dog, were on one of the hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. Charlie’s life now consists of a new adolescence where he does what he wants because of the insurance money, so he plays video games late at night, goes to see Mel Brooks retrospectives, and keeps remodeling his kitchen over and over. He is without friends and refuses to even think about any painful memories. Alan takes it upon himself to help his former dentist school pal confront his grief and get back on his feet.
The varying elements never truly mesh, and Reign Over Me has a very haphazard, clumsy feel as it never comes to a firm landing. There’s a mixture of the serious and the sitcom, and both elements go together as well as vodka and motor oil — sure it may work in the immediate but couldn’t it be much better? Many of the connections feel tenuous and it’s hard to care about certain storylines, especially the film’s preoccupation with Alan’s midlife malaise. Are we supposed to be in Alan’s corner as he argues his adult life sucks because women at the office throw themselves at him and his wife wants him to open up? Am I really supposed to believe the film’s assertion that he covets the freedom of a 9/11 widower? Reign Over Me never shifts gears smoothly when it comes to tone. The audience is left to question why this story needs to be told through the prism of a bored dentist. It never truly feels right.
Charlie isn’t just bummed out, he is severely damaged from the shock of 9/11; this is far beyond post-traumatic. At several points he just freaks into violent fits out for no discernible reason, but people still tolerate him and don’t call for greater help. It would be naive to think that one friend could fix all of the psychological horrors of one man, but then you remember this is a movie. Charlie could use some serious meds. Friendship is important, but Reign Over Me toys with the object of abject loss without delving too deep, instead feeling that one good crying confessional and a terribly manipulative and unbelievable court battle will sum everything up.
I think that feeling was pervasive for me while watching Reign Over Me was that I felt toyed with. The drama takes a long time to wind down and even then it settles on surface-level solutions that always seem so easy in movies. Many of the comedic elements feel too dependent on sitcom generalizations. Charlie comes to Alan’s apartment late at night and asks his wife if he can go out and play. Alan chastises his friend, saying he’s an adult and doesn’t need his wife’s permission to go outside. Can anyone guess what the next moment will entail? That’s right, he asks his wife if he can go out and play. You’ll be forgiven if you hold for expectations of a laugh track. Reign Over Me even is also filled with the usual suspects like the brassy receptionist, the shyster lawyer, and the hilarious misunderstandings between the sexes that bring about sexual harassment lawsuits.
Let me stop and illuminate on that last bit. Alan’s patient is obsessed with wanting to orally pleasure the good doctor, enough that she sues when he declines a second time. For whatever reason, he sees her again and she apologizes in some ham-handed back-story about how her husband dumping her left her devastated (and if you can figure out what Binder has in store for the film’s broken female and broken male, then you too deserve a lollipop). This storyline is beyond tacky, a bit humiliating for the actress, and a prime example of how poorly the all the female roles are written. It’s shocking that Reign Over Me can examine male adult male bonding so well but completely drop the ball with every single female character. Alan’s wife seems nice and responsible but the film tries to convince us she’s sucking the life out of him because she likes jigsaw puzzles, quiet nights at the home, and knowing where her husband is when he’s out odd hours of the night. It’s appalling how this movie treats its female characters. They are either seen as flighty beings at the control of their sexual desires or as cold, non-sexual wet blankets. After the hour mark you can almost forget about seeing anything about Alan’s family except for an implausibly tidy “I’m sorry/No I’m sorry” phone call.
Sandler can be a fine actor when given the right material, and a character that retreats into an infantile existence seems like a plum role for him. He effectively channels Charlie’s disconnect from reality, but a lot of his grief tics will start to remind you of Rain Man-style autism, like repeating phrases, obsessive behavior, and moaning and rocking while upset. He gets lots in his Bob Dylan bird’s nest of hair.
Cheadle is always dependable as an actor and proves to be a stable center the film needs because of its narrative shortcomings. He’s doing primarily a lot of reaction but still manages to work above his material and build sympathy to a character that really deserves less. Sandler bounces around like a ping-pong ball and Cheadle holds steady, and the two men form a rather strong acting unit that just makes me wish the material were up to their task.
Ultimately Reign Over Me is hard to pile on because of its wealth of good intentions and fleeting moments of dramatic heft. It’s a messy film that somehow believes all its disjointed elements fit together, when in reality the movie never settles on a cohesive tone. The acing is generally strong and there’s some mature and realistic writing regarding male relationships, however, there are just as many frustrating moments. The film skims the surface of Big Issues like 9/11 grieving but never wants to develop into something more thoughtful. Instead, the film retreats much like Charlie into an easier existence where the questions are only momentary. Reign Over Me is a fine if unremarkable drama, but good intentions can only take you so far. At some point, to be memorable, you have to actually be good.
Nate?s Grade: B-
I’ve heard a lot of talk about whether America was ready for United 93. Almost every magazine or newspaper article you’d read about director Paul Greengrass’ real time account of 9/11 began with the question, “Is it too soon?” That’s mostly a personal decision. My response: of course not. They were making World War II movies while Europe was still burning and while Pearl Harbor was still recovering. Speaking of which, doesn’t anyone feel that a 9/11 movie would be much more powerful and respectful now, five years removed from one of the worst days in American history? We can still remember that awful day, and most importantly, we can use art as a means of catharsis when the subject remains relevant. Does anyone seriously want to wait 20 years down the pipe for a 9/11 movie to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer? Was 2001’s Pearl Harbor the kind of movie we’ll get when it’s “not too soon?” While I’d never insist people see United 93 if they weren’t ready, I will say it’s definitely a movie that demands to be seen sooner rather than later.
On September 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked in the sky by members of the terrorist group Al-Quaeda. Two crashed into New York’s World Trade Center building. Another crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth plane, United 93, was delayed on its initial takeoff, meaning the four hijackers on board were already behind schedule. After the hijackers had taken control of the plane and turned it back around, presumably headed toward the White House, the passengers started making phone calls from the flight and piecing together the scenario. They weren’t going to land at any airport; they were a bomb on wings. The passengers came together with a heroic plan to take back the plane and use a fellow passenger, with flying experience, to help them land. Their valiant effort ended in United 93 crashing in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
United 93 is one of the most nerve-racking movie going experiences I have ever seen. Because of our prior knowledge of the events, every little thing carries so much dread, from a man who just makes the plane to simple phone calls, unknowingly their last, that end so regularly in “I love you.” Hitchcock said tension was watching a happy couple unaware of a ticking bomb below their picnic table, and he was right. United 93 is grueling to sit through, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t rewarding. We’re going through the same situation and harrowing steps of realization as the passengers. The final phone calls on board may be the most emotionally wrenching thing I’ve seen in a movie since 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. The final 30-minutes of the film, concentrating on the passengers retaking the plane, is some of the most intense cinema I’ve seen in years. My heart was beating outside of my chest and I was shaking, even after I got out of the theater. I spent the next hour at my house walking around trying to shake it off but I couldn’t. This is an incredibly powerful and sobering film that will stay with you like a bad dream.
Witnessing the unfolding events of United 93, a spellbinding example of you-are-there cinema verite, you really feel like you’re watching a living documentary. There’s nothing sensational or overly political that happens within United 93. Greengrass even has the temerity to present the hijackers as human beings, granted human beings capable of ferocious acts of horror. The first moments of the movie are the hijackers preparing, praying, reciting the Koran, and going about their plot. You see them sweat, get antsy, and the lead hijacker evens seems a bit hesitant about following through, especially since this coordinated attack was botched by United 93’s delay on the tarmac. Some would call such a portrayal ludicrous, citing a scene where a hijacker calls his girlfriend to say his last “I love you” as apologetic claptrap. Some would take offense that the hijackers are not demonized, have horns sprouting from their heads, or laugh maniacally at spilled blood. But just like Spielberg’s portrayal of Palestinians in Munich, human evil is much more nuanced than simply painting a mustache on. United 93 shows every side to 9/11 like what a good documentary should do. This isn’t propaganda, this isn’t exploitation, this is respectful filmmaking. Yes, we?ll never know what happened on flight 93, and much of the film is speculation, but it’s speculation built around research and reverence.
Greengrass is in fine form, recreating the same sense of building desperation and terror that he so elegantly assembled in 2002’s Bloody Sunday. The antic handheld camerawork may give people some headaches, but no filmmaker does a better job of putting you in the moment than Greengrass. His decision to use real people portraying themselves, like FAA head Ben Sliney, creates a greater feel for authenticity, even having the film’s stewardesses played by real United stewardesses. None of it feels gimmicky, nor is Greengrass interested in telling a jingoistic, hyperbolic action adventure. The famous “Let’s roll” line is just another line said amongst many in the planning process for taking back the flight. The violence is sudden and shocking but never sensationalized. United 93 ends exactly as it should too. You?ll probably hear sobbing in your theater at that point; I did.
There have been complaints that the character development in United 93 is lacking. But really this is a story about 2 hours on one morning, told in real time, and how much talking do strangers do on a flight? Some, sure, but not a lot. To answer critics, if we’d gotten to know these characters extensively it would either break the fabric of reality and turn these people into eagerly sharing, easily emotive figures, not people, or would require extensive flashbacks which would remove us from the visceral feeling of the story. That’s why Greengrass cuts back to NORAD and the FAA, because there’s stuff happening there; the slow realization of fright, the disbelief, the staggering amount of confusion and miscommunication. They can’t even get anyone from the White House on the phone to even establish a chain of command. If we had staid onboard we would be watching people read magazines or eat peanuts for 30 minutes. I never once felt less for these people because of the characterization concerns.
The “ordinariness” of the passengers is what works best, because it just as easily could have been you or me, but would we have reacted the same? Had it been “Tom Cruise starring in United 93″ then it never would have worked. This excels on how realistic everything comes across, and any Hollywood moment that would shatter that realism is absent (thank God there’s no product placement). One of the more amazing aspects of United 93‘s conclusion is just how fast everything came about. These people had little time to act, much less take stock of the waking nightmare the day was turning into and formulate a plan. The movie is a touching tribute to a group of ordinary people that became something more on one of our darkest days.
Naturally, United 93 is not going to be a film for everyone. It’s unflinching, grueling, and altogether hard to sit through. It does a stupendous job of recreating that tragic day and allowing our own knowledge of the events to build an overwhelming sense of dread. Greengrass excels in this arena of storytelling and he’s worked his docu-drama magic once more, painstakingly allowing the viewer feel like they are a participant, to the point where we even get a rush of hope that maybe the passengers could take back their plane and save themselves. The question of whether it’s too soon for a major 9/11 movie has to be decided on an individual level. I don’t recall anyone griping about the thousands of documentaries and the A&E Flight 93 TV movie, all of which, yes, made money off 9/11 too. I think for us as a society, we need this movie to remind ourselves of the heroism and sacrifice of a few. It’s very easy to get lulled back to complacency, but the masterful United 93 will not allow that. This is a powerful story told without a hint of melodrama and it will be guaranteed to be near my Best of the Year list when 2006 rolls to a close.
Nate’s Grade: A