United 93: Plutarch Would Have Loved It

The DVD of United 93 will go on sale today. There are at least five reasons why you should rush out and buy a copy:

1. It is a way of voting against liberal defeatism and mainstream apathy and forgetfulness—a way of saying, in the language of sales dollars that even liberals listen to, "yes, I care; yes, I will remember; yes, I will do whatever I can to make sure that these dead shall not have died in vain."

2. It is something that you will want to pass on to your grandchildren, a compelling proof to them of the gallant stuff that even ordinary Americans were made of in our time.

3. It is a second chance to avail yourself of the marvelous opportunity you probably passed up the first time. The so—so box office receipts reflected the uncomfortable fact that even those who remembered and cared didn't want to go; that the few who went did so only because they felt compelled to. Let's be honest; we dreaded having to relive the agony of that morning. 

I dragged myself to a late night showing and felt a knot growing in my stomach while I waited for it to start. But five minutes into the movie, I had forgotten my qualms and was completely absorbed in the action. There was none of the prolonged gut—wrenching suspense that moviemakers love to torture us with. Things moved as fast as they had on that morning, so that there was no time for dread. And the end did not leave me with horror or despair but rather admiration and resolve.

4. It is the most honest slice of history you will ever see. I've forgotten in what language 'history' literally translates as 'lies about the past'. The only completely honest historian I ever read was Plutarch, who loved to cite conflicting sources and often refused to draw conclusions about his subjects. Virtually all other historians are to some degree deliberately or unconsciously mendacious, running the gamut from shameless liars like Llorente or Japanese text—book writers, through the half truths of politically ambitious generals, self—justifying politicians, and thesis—proving professional historians, to the erroneous but well—intentioned recollections of ordinary people with fallible and mutable memories.

The temptation to dishonesty and bias is even stronger for moviemakers, who love to revise and restructure the truth to make it more 'artistic' and who can 'nuance', by manipulating the editing cuts, casting, or expressions on the actors' faces. There are dozens of ways of sneaking the desired  'message' or 'statement' across—or just wringing a maximum of emotion out of the audience.

The makers of United 93 chose instead to be honest and neutral. Their sole aim was to reproduce a moment of history as accurately as possible. There is no message, no bias, no idolizing or demonizing. No single passenger stands out as the Hero. Even the young Arab terrorists are treated as human beings with their own fears and uncertainties. The single objective of the movie was to recreate reality, to the extent that our knowledge of the events would allow.

5. It is a brilliant movie. Mere honesty could have been achieved by a tedious documentary. A 'docudrama' such as World Trade Center, with well—known stars in the lead roles and intense background music, would have had the phony intimacy that corrupts 'reality' TV. A gimmick like the shaky hand—held camera in The Blair Witch Project would have betrayed itself by its own cuteness.

Disdaining such tricks, writer—director Paul Greengrass and his crew managed to achieve an astonishing semblance of reality, of history being accidentally caught by security cameras, by combining a highly disciplined economy of camera work with the use of virtually unknown actors—and actual participants. The people playing the ground personnel in the air control towers, the FAA office, and the military bases were for the most part the men and women who had actually been there that morning. Who else could know better how it felt? Finally, whenever the known facts are ambiguous, the movie, refusing to use invention or surmise, becomes ambiguous too, thus producing the most stunning conclusion I have ever seen in a film.

If there were any justice, United 93 would receive a barrel of Oscars. You can bet that won't happen; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is too politicized and too box—office conscious for that. But you can cast your own vote by buying a copy of United 93 and making a family ritual of replaying it every September 11 morning at 8 AM.

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist.

The DVD of United 93 will go on sale today. There are at least five reasons why you should rush out and buy a copy:

1. It is a way of voting against liberal defeatism and mainstream apathy and forgetfulness—a way of saying, in the language of sales dollars that even liberals listen to, "yes, I care; yes, I will remember; yes, I will do whatever I can to make sure that these dead shall not have died in vain."

2. It is something that you will want to pass on to your grandchildren, a compelling proof to them of the gallant stuff that even ordinary Americans were made of in our time.

3. It is a second chance to avail yourself of the marvelous opportunity you probably passed up the first time. The so—so box office receipts reflected the uncomfortable fact that even those who remembered and cared didn't want to go; that the few who went did so only because they felt compelled to. Let's be honest; we dreaded having to relive the agony of that morning. 

I dragged myself to a late night showing and felt a knot growing in my stomach while I waited for it to start. But five minutes into the movie, I had forgotten my qualms and was completely absorbed in the action. There was none of the prolonged gut—wrenching suspense that moviemakers love to torture us with. Things moved as fast as they had on that morning, so that there was no time for dread. And the end did not leave me with horror or despair but rather admiration and resolve.

4. It is the most honest slice of history you will ever see. I've forgotten in what language 'history' literally translates as 'lies about the past'. The only completely honest historian I ever read was Plutarch, who loved to cite conflicting sources and often refused to draw conclusions about his subjects. Virtually all other historians are to some degree deliberately or unconsciously mendacious, running the gamut from shameless liars like Llorente or Japanese text—book writers, through the half truths of politically ambitious generals, self—justifying politicians, and thesis—proving professional historians, to the erroneous but well—intentioned recollections of ordinary people with fallible and mutable memories.

The temptation to dishonesty and bias is even stronger for moviemakers, who love to revise and restructure the truth to make it more 'artistic' and who can 'nuance', by manipulating the editing cuts, casting, or expressions on the actors' faces. There are dozens of ways of sneaking the desired  'message' or 'statement' across—or just wringing a maximum of emotion out of the audience.

The makers of United 93 chose instead to be honest and neutral. Their sole aim was to reproduce a moment of history as accurately as possible. There is no message, no bias, no idolizing or demonizing. No single passenger stands out as the Hero. Even the young Arab terrorists are treated as human beings with their own fears and uncertainties. The single objective of the movie was to recreate reality, to the extent that our knowledge of the events would allow.

5. It is a brilliant movie. Mere honesty could have been achieved by a tedious documentary. A 'docudrama' such as World Trade Center, with well—known stars in the lead roles and intense background music, would have had the phony intimacy that corrupts 'reality' TV. A gimmick like the shaky hand—held camera in The Blair Witch Project would have betrayed itself by its own cuteness.

Disdaining such tricks, writer—director Paul Greengrass and his crew managed to achieve an astonishing semblance of reality, of history being accidentally caught by security cameras, by combining a highly disciplined economy of camera work with the use of virtually unknown actors—and actual participants. The people playing the ground personnel in the air control towers, the FAA office, and the military bases were for the most part the men and women who had actually been there that morning. Who else could know better how it felt? Finally, whenever the known facts are ambiguous, the movie, refusing to use invention or surmise, becomes ambiguous too, thus producing the most stunning conclusion I have ever seen in a film.

If there were any justice, United 93 would receive a barrel of Oscars. You can bet that won't happen; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is too politicized and too box—office conscious for that. But you can cast your own vote by buying a copy of United 93 and making a family ritual of replaying it every September 11 morning at 8 AM.

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist.