“United 93″: First Impressions

Well, I took a deep breath and watched United 93 during the Seattle snowstorm.

And it was just as harrowing as I feared, just as harrowing as it should be.

As a recreation of the events, I’d say it’s about as perfect a film as we could hope for.

But when I start considering the value of a film like this, I find myself conflicted, and I doubt I’ll come to any conclusion anytime soon.

VOICE #1:
United 93 is immensely powerful in several ways, including

- the way it delivers us a concentrated portrait the growing Isalmic hatred for Western civilisation;

- the folly of pretending that terrorists are reasonable people with whom we can negotiate;

- the unpreparedness of our nation for this kind of threat;

- the DANGER of thinking that because we are a world-power “Goliath” we are immune to zealous Islamic “Davids”;

- the inability of secular society to comprehend the power of religious conviction;

- the capacity for Americans to respond with discipline, concscience, and selfless valor;

- the severe weaknesses in communication between government, defense, and civil services;

- its pristine example of artistic excellence and restraint, devoid of any familiar Hollywood glamor;

- its ruthless adherence to the details of ordinary life;

United 93 is a fantastic piece of work, easily one of the year’s most remarkable achievements. Americans should preserve the film as an active agent fighting our forgetfulness, our ignorance, and our denial.

VOICE #2:

Sure, it’s an impeccably detailed re-creation of those events. But how can you wish a film like this on anybody?

I sincerely doubt I’ll ever watch it again. It’s a horror and a heartbreak that anybody should have to suffer what those passengers suffered. What good does it do us to subject ourselves to those disgraceful acts of barbarism?

If we have to live through it, moment by moment, with them in order to appreciate their sufferings and the severity of the hatred confronting us, I think that’s a sad reflection on us.

I don’t find revelation and comfort in mere clinical attention to the factual realities so much as I do when the imagination is employed to tell a story, and the description arranged like a net to catch something more than mere “footage,” more than mere documentation. Sure the film has been ruthtlessly researched. But what does it give us that we do not already have from the countless piles of news reporting? What effect does it have on us greater than the re-opening of the wound, and throwing fuel on the fires of our fear and grief?

Our days immerse us in the particularity of reality, but it is the noble endeavor of the imagination to see the transcendant in the particular. If we need movies to wake us up to the particulars of an atrocity, that is because we are lazy and forgetful. Art should train us in how to see, not merely show us what other people did see.

VOICE #1:

Yes, but in stripping away the glamor, flash, and dazzle of Hollywood… the tricks to which we have become accustomed… and reminding us of what the conflict is like in reality, this film is performing an admirable service. It’s much preferable to the glossy, star-studded portrayals that are already arriving which employ sentimentality to make us feel patriotic or merely emotional.

VOICE #2:

Yes, but while I don’t want a sensationalized, glamorizied Hollywood production, I would prefer an artist more inquisitive than Greengrass… someone who has a clearer purpose than “SEE WHAT IT WAS REALLY LIKE! WHAT A NIGHTMARE!” The film lacks seems almost entirely uninclined toward metaphor. And that is a strange aspect of something presented as a work of art.

This film is more about informing than revealing. And those who need to be forced through a sensory experience of this horror in order to understand and respond appropriately are like those who need to see a detailed, real-time depiction of human sacrifice in order to respond appropriately. What does it say about our culture that we *need* a film like this in order to appropriately “remember”?

VOICE #1:

Flannery O’Connor would say that a deaf culture needs artists that shout. A numb culture needs to be awakened with a sledgehammer. Maybe that’s why we need this film.

VOICE #2:

Okay. But how very sad a state we are in if we need this kind of reminder. Perhaps it’s a cynical response, but I tend to think that those who haven’t already taken to heart what this film will show them are unlikely to take it to heart for more than the few hours that it takes them to see the film and then shake it off before buying a ticket to Casino Royale.

That’s a generalization, and perhaps a mean one, and I’m sure there are plenty of meaningful observations and interpretations to be found here. But I can’t say I learned anything from this film that wasn’t available in the countless articles documenting the events of that day. I merely sat and watched, saying, “Yes, that’s how that probably happened. Yes, that’s what that was probably like.” And then I felt sick about it all over again, and I’m still trying to shake it.

September 11 left deep, deep wounds in all of us. What do we gain by treateing those wounds through reliving it liek this? Isn’t like having a doctor prescribe we treat the ailment by subjecting ourselves to the cause again?

CONCLUSION:

I am still processing this experience. And I don’t know what to make of it, or if I’m glad I decided to watch it at all.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Ellen Collison

    And re. the Qu’ran and Muslim theologies (the plural is accurate) – there are many competing schools of thought, jurisprudence, theology and philosophy in the Muslim world.

    When I am reading the Bible, I really like to try to understand the framework in which the text was written – and learn something about the people for whom it was being written. it helps tremendously in understanding Scripture as God’s inspired word.

    So, too, in order to read the Qu’ran with understanding, we need to be aware that there are *many* different schools of thought and interpretation. Unfortunately, the media emphasis here in the US has been on a couple of extremist groups/sects (Wahhabism and Salafism) whose theology is an aberration. Literally. There are *conservative, tradtionalist* Muslim scholars and theologians who find the extremists’ beliefs to be wrong and not consonant with Islamic belief.

    As in the West (in both Judaism and Christianity), the range of beliefs is incredibly broad, and – in some respects – much closer to both Judaism and Christianity than most of us realize.

    There *are* a lot of talking points here – more than we’re comfortable with, maybe! You might also be pleasantly surprised to find that most Middle Eastern Muslims speak of spiritual things as a normal part of conversation. (Unlike us.) it can be much easier to speak with someone from a Muslim background about beliefs and God than with those who come from our own culture. Granted, some people will try to proseletyze, but that’s equally true of Christians. ;)

    Also, most Middle Eastern and African Muslims are accustomed to living side-by-side with people who profess other faiths, and it’s not uncommon for people of differing religious beliefs to form close friendships.

    We need to adapt and adopt some of these peoples’ understanding and compassion to our situation here in the US.

  • Ellen Collison

    M Cruz,

    I think you need to get to know some normal people who are Muslims. I mean that honestly; not as a derogatory or sarcastic comment. My experience as an ESL tutor (and semi-missionary)has been *exactly* like that of the woman JO interviewed. Also, many friends (Arab and non-Arab)who are from countries with large Muslim populations experience the same in day-to-day encounters with people.

    We wouldn’t lie about it. Seriously.

    90% or more of what has been shown in the American media is a very innacurate and biased portrayal of Islam, comparable to saying that Jim Jones and the Branch Davidians are excellent representatives of Christianity. (In other words, false.)

    I don’t expect to change your mind by what I’m saying. But I do pray that you will let God teach you of his grace and mercy as shown in and through your fellow men and women. (Very much including Muslims.) Because his compassion is for all, and he loves all, whether we love him in return or even know his name.

    Perhaps you might take a look at http://www.30-days.net as a starting place for getting a deeper understanding of the many, highly varied cultures in which Islam is one of the chief religions. Their info. is accurate, and up to date – and honest. Great links section, BTW!

  • M. Cruz

    ‘There are dangerous Christians who distort the scriptures, just as there are dangerous Mulsims who seize certain writings of their own prophets to justify reprehensible acts.’

    This is not a valid comparison. Read even the beginning of the Koran. Read about the life of Mohammad himself. When Muslims commit violence they are doing so in accordance with what their prophet and their teachings command. When Christians (so-called) commit violence they are doing so in opposition to what Jesus and the Bible teach. That is the difference I am trying to point out.

    ‘Similarly, we must not let 9/11 rage lead us to the broad-stroke demonization of all Muslims.’

    Of course not. I’m not saying that, nor do I want that.

    Yes, some people call themselves Christians and commit violence, sometimes. But where do we see this happening on a regular basis? Where are these Christians, strapping bombs to themselves and killing ‘unbelievers’?

    It just doesn’t normally happen. And if it does their actions are denounced by other Christians, strongly and publicly.

    The problem I see over and over is that people are not distinguishing between the people themselves and the contents of the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed. This is what I cannot seem to get across to people. Yes, there are good Muslims. No one’s denying that. I am saying the teachings themselves endorse, excuse and sometimes command violence.

    Please, just read some of the Koran for yourself. Read about Mohammad’s life from some of his own biographers. It’s all there. Why won’t people just do this and see for themselves?

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    But really, do we all need to be experts in Islamic theology to be disgusted by the violence we have seen and continue to see almost daily?

    We don’t need to be experts in anything to be disgusted with the violence. But to generalize that this is what all Muslims want or support is dangerous.

    I know a Christian missionary named Allison who lives in an Muslim culture. I interviewed her about her experience for 90 minutes last month. She’s becoming one of my personal heroes.

    And she speaks with great affection for the Muslim people she knows and works with. She says that Christians in America have an overly simplistic idea of their culture, and could learn a lot from them.

    The Muslisms she has worked with in Iraq and Sudan… most recently Darfur… have shown her great respect, and speak with conviction about their respect for Jews and Christians. They have also modeled for her a grace in their family lives that is far superior than what she has seen in the American families that she knows. Further, they do not match at all the stereotypes she was warned about when she talked to American Christians about Arab culture. She knows they need the gospel, but it has been humbling for her to realize how much God is teaching her and her Christian coworkers through their time there.

    She says that the Muslims sometimes generalize about Christians based on the violence that their own cultures have suffered at the hands of a “Christian nation.”

    Now, frankly, I would object to having them stereotype all Christians as war-waging civilian-killers. I would suggest that they learn a little more about Christianity before they allow their disgust to lead them to damaging stereotypes.

    There are dangerous Christians who distort the scriptures, just as there are dangerous Mulsims who seize certain writings of their own prophets to justify reprehensible acts.

    If people paint all Christians as people who will wage war and kill innocent civilians in the name of Jesus, we would be right to ask them to think again. People do bad things in the name of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean all Christians are wrong.

    Similarly, we must not let 9/11 rage lead us to the broad-stroke demonization of all Muslims.

  • M. Cruz

    In reesponse to Jeff’s comment –

    I have gotten as far as page 63 of the Koran (in the version I own.) It is difficult reading, as from the first page on, the hatred for the ‘unbelievers’ is clear. But I do hope to finish at some point. If you’ve read up to that point, I’d like to hear your thoughts as well.

    As for the verses you’re mentioning I would need to know where they are. Also, oftentimes verses that were revealed [to Mohammed]later on cancel out (abrogate) verses that came before. Many of the so-called peaceful verses are considered abrograted by the violent ones that came after.

    But really, do we all need to be experts in Islamic theology to be disgusted by the violence we have seen and continue to see almost daily? Wasn’t 9/11 enough? Weren’t the bombings in Madrid and London enough? It stuns me that I have to say these things, when we all lived through 9/11 and we all see the news each day.

    I’m not seeing much respect for Jews or Christians (or anyone else, for that matter.) What I do hear over and over is calls for the destruction of Israel and continued threats towards unbelievers in general.

    As I said before, where are these moderate Muslims? Where are the giant protests against the violence, just as there have been giant protests agains the Pope, against the President, against America?

    If there are moderate Muslims who will stand with the rest of civilized society in condemning the violence done in the name of their religion, then I am happy to stand with them.

    It’s five years after 9/11/01. Where are they?

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    M. Cruz, I didn’t realize you’ve read the Koran cover to cover.

    What do you do, then, with the passages in which Muslims are encouraged to get to know and show respect to “the people of the book” (Jews and Christians)?

  • M. Cruz

    In response to Ellen Collison’s comment, oh, really? When we start seeing this often mentioned yet never quite materialising “majority” standing up to protest the violence done in their name, then I’ll be more inclined to believe this.

    I will give you a hint – it won’t happen. Islamic teaching and tradition is clear on this matter. Those who do not support violence are doing so in direct opposition to the teaching of their own religion.

    That is why this movie was so difficult and painful to watch – not just because we had a glimpse of what those people must have suffered, but because we saw *why* this happened and the savageness of those who did it.

    It’s difficult to watch because even now, five years later, people do not want to face the fact that this religion itself – not just a whacked out fringe – teaches and condones violence of the most heinous sort.

  • Ellen Collison

    I think it’s extremely important to keep in mind that the majority of the world’s Muslims do not condone the kinds of acts committed by Al Qaeda members and other Muslim terrorists (mostly adherents of Wahhabism and Salafism). The people in the extremist groups perceive most other Muslims as being infidels – and are willing to kill them. This has been true in many Al Qaeda attacks (like the one in Nairobi, where most of the population is Muslim), and in Sudan, where Al Qaeda supports the current regime in its violence against its opponents (many of those opponents are Muslim; ditto for the people dying in Darfur and Kordofan).

  • raymond

    I don’t think I’ve ever been moved by a movie more than with United 93. I saw it in the theater and cried for the last ten minutes. I hesitantly sat down to watch it again with my uncle (who hadn’t seen it) on DVD, and he cried at the end as well, which only got me going. And he’s butch.

    I didn’t take this film lightly. It effectively gave me a perspective I will remember for the rest of my life, just as I remember watching television that day and seeing things I can’t get out of my head. Which is not pleasant, but very necessary, as so many people have forgotten, and in order to not make the same mistakes again, we have to remember those we made in the past.

    I don’t think everyone needs to see this film. No film is necessary. But most people do need to see this. And sadly, those who need to see it the most, probably don’t care about anything that’s going on around them in the world. United 93 effectively puts you in the plane, where facing the truth is unavoidable, and denial no longer feels good.

    I think it is the most effective piece of filmmaking this year, possibly this decade. I cannot stress how important it is.

  • M. Cruz

    It’s one of those films you feel you need to see, but really have no desire to ever see again.

    I think it should be seen by every person in the world, so that they can see and feel the true horror of what these people who have declared war on all civilization are truly capable of. It seems no one wants to face it.

    This is jihad. This is what we’re fighting against. We need to get our heads out of the sand and stop fighting one another, and start fighting this.

  • Geoffrey S. DeWeese

    I was afraid to watch it and wondered if it should have been made. I was worried that someone had rushed to be the first, and that bothered me. The wounds were still fresh. Yet I rented it and watched it and cried at the end and was profoundly moved. Sure, not everything could have happened that way, but it was so real – no characters, only real people. To include the terrorists. They showed fear and resolve. The movie treated them like people, not like straw men. I found this movie important because in watching it I was reminded of the powerful feelings I had that day and was able to reflect on them again. Feelings like that and events like that need reflection, and this movie helped in that respect. Further, the fact that all families of the victims (I think) supported the film is so important – it did not exploit them, it told about them. I was more in line with voice 2 until I saw the movie, now I’m strongly with voice 1 and agree it was one of the most important movies of the year.

  • Tim Frankovich

    I saw it once, in the theater. I have yet to buy the DVD. I don’t know if I can watch it again for a long, long time. I tend to side more with your first voice, but… the next time I watch it will probably be when one of my little children is old enough to be cynical about things, and I want to shock them and motivate them.

  • Thom

    I found the film brought a certain reality of PEOPLE home that the non-stop news coverage lacked back in 2001. On top of that, the fact that it didn’t paint the terrorists in a cartoonish light.

    I found it powerful. Honestly, I found it more powerful in every way than the Passion of the Christ (which tended to evoke your voice number two for me a lot more than United 93).

  • Charlie

    First, Flannery O’Connor was always right about the way we become dulled to the realities of the spiritual battles, the continuing presence of evil — and grace — and how only shock can awaken us from our stupor. So United 93, a remarkable film because it plays the horrible story dead straight, is necessary, because we are blind. And blindness is not a modern condition, but an ongoing human condition.

    Second, I will watch the movie again because it is a memorial to the courage of some very ordinary people who did not expect to be called upon to act courageously. It is also a much-needed reminder that, despite our ultra-individualistic tendencies as Americans, we are at our best when we pull together in community.

    9/11 reminded us that we are one people joined together by common values, despite so many things that separate us. The self-sacrifice of the men and women on United 93, who gave themselves up to save the lives of others in Washington, testify beautifully about the powerful values that still hold us together as a nation.

  • Mike Harris Stone

    I can emphasize with voice # 2. I found seeing it somewhat harrowing as well, but wanted more interpretation from the film. What the film does do well is present a reasonably factual vision and let one draw one’s own conclusions. I have to say though I like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center better…though it reminded me so much of what if felt like in Manhattan that day I re-experienced some stress after seeing it…I think it was equally relatively factual but somehow more human at the same time. Maybe because it was less restrained in its emotion.

  • Anonymous

    SDG: Yes, one of the best things about this film is that it shows that group of people who didn’t go down quietly, didn’t go down as entirely helpless victims. The interviews that Greengrass has given about this film are really fascinating.

    And I have found films about the horrifying events of, say, Pearl Harbor and Nazi concentration camps profoundly revealing–but I can’t think of a single one that had a deeper or more positive affect on me than this film, this story about my time and my world.

  • Peter T Chattaway

    I was wondering if you’d seen this yet, Jeff. The other day, I found myself thinking back to all those discussions we had about whether anybody “had to” see this film, and it occurred to me that the end of the year was coming up, and anybody who wants to compile a list of the year’s ten best films does, indeed, “have to” see this film; it may not make the grade, but it should at least be given consideration, and not rejected sight-unseen.

  • SDG

    Is there a voice that’s noticed that the film is about anything other than horror and nightmare, victimizers and victims — that there is anything ennobling or humanistic at work in this story?

    Based on the dialogue recorded to date, one might think the voices were discussing a film about Ground Zero, instead of a film about the one event on that day of infamy that was something other than an unmitigated atrocity.

  • Nick

    Have you considered that perhaps this movie will work far better, say, twenty years from now, when future generations can learn from it?

    I was born during the time the US sent troups to Vietnam. I do not doubt that, for those soldiers, some of them had undergone some of the most harrowing experiences/visuals/sounds that any battle neophyte has yet to encounter. And yet, I watch a movie like _Platoon_ or _Apocolypse Now_, knowing that the experiences culled into those films were strong reminders as to what an American soldier went thru, even if shoehorned into a makeshift plot.

    Ditto for the holocaust experience in _Schindler’s List_ or the landing at Normandy in _Saving Private Ryan_ (tho, I thought the last example to be too over-the-top).

    This movie may be far more valuable as a you-are-there re-enactment for educational purposes, rather than for thoughtful, cinematic experience.


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