Ordinary heroes

Posted: May 02, 2006 12:01 AM

Not long ago, unwilling to acquiesce to the flabby ravages of time, I started working out with a trainer. Having just begun our sessions, he wasn’t yet too familiar with what I did for a living. He had some sense of my being a writer, but not who I wrote for or what I wrote about.

A few weeks into my program, as the news flickered on the captioned cardio area televisions, MSNBC rolled a clip of the president reasserting his administration’s commitment to win the War on Terror.

“Oh please,” the man I had tasked with turning me into an Elle McPherson body double sniffed, “America’s the world’s biggest terrorist.”

“Excuse me,” I replied, aghast that he would so casually assume I’d agree.

“Oh, I guess not America,” he stumbled, “but George Bush. He’s the biggest terrorist there is, don’t you think?”

“What on earth would make you say that?”

“Well, you know, because he started the war.”

“No. He didn’t,” I responded in as measured a tone as I could muster. “Al Qaeda started a war with us. They declared it when they first attacked the World Trade Center in 1993; when they bombed our embassies in Africa in 1998; when they struck the U.S.S. Cole in 2000; and when nineteen of their hijackers murdered nearly 3,000 innocent Americans in 2001. They are the world’s biggest terrorists. We are responding to their attacks by destroying them and the regimes that aid and abet them.”

It was a tense moment in our burgeoning relationship, but, flustered as I was that anti-Americanism apparently now qualifies as gym chit-chat, I didn’t hire a new trainer. And after a few more workouts, during which the pain he inflicted on me was far greater than the psychological discomfort of that day, I came to see that he didn’t mean to offend me—he was, in fact, trying to relate to me.

Not being a political sort of person, he had heard I was a political sort of person and was simply parroting the political sort of things he had absorbed in passing from NPR and network news, thinking I would enjoy commiserating with their bleak outlook.

I tell this story because I don’t believe my encounter is at all uncommon. Much of the public, particularly the young twenty- and thirty-something public, takes the superficial, punchline-oriented analysis they get from outlets like “The Daily Show” at face value. For them, though 9/11 may come up frequently, it is most often in the context of what America, George Bush, and U.S. intelligence did wrong then and are doing wrong now in regards to it. The monstrosity of the attacks and those who committed them have been swept under a rug of pop geopolitics.

Director Paul Greengrass’ (The Bourne Supremacy) new film, United 93, could be the first effective cultural attempt to pull that rug away.

Though it is about as unsentimentalized a portrayal as one could imagine, in its starkness and its attention to detail, United 93 takes us into the heart of the confusion and fear, as well as the courage and competency provoked by the events of September 11, 2001. So committed was Greengrass to the facts of the day, numerous people, including Federal Aviation Administration's Operations Manager Ben Sliney, play themselves in the film (I won’t venture to guess what it says about star salaries that most of them do so more convincingly than any A-lister could hope to).

While the movie centers on the heroic passengers of Flight 93, it doesn’t make headliners of any of them. No one person takes center stage. From a purely technical point of view, his decision to approach the project this way makes Greengrass’ job doubly hard. Normally, background story and intimate knowledge helps us identify with the primary characters. Here we connect with them through the business of their ordinary interaction. Some are healthy and reject the airline breakfast in favor of a stowed apple; some aren’t so healthy and joke with the stewardesses about whether they should have a shot of rye along with their morning coffee. In their careless conversation, their talk of babies at home and plans after landing, we recognize those who died on 9/11 as our neighbors, our family, our friends…as all of us.

Of those things that can’t be known, what was said and what happened inside the cabin before the plane crashed, Greengrass spares no sacred entertainment cows. The religious affiliation of the terrorists is clear, as is their depravity. At the same time, he doesn’t make caricatures of their evil nor of the passengers’ heroics. Those on board Flight 93 formulate and execute their plan quickly, sometimes sloppily, but, in true American spirit, always decisively. Once they fully understand their circumstances, they refuse to give in to terror.

No one could claim that the experience of watching United 93 is completely pleasurable, but there is a payoff to stress, tension, and sorrow of reliving that day beyond simply learning more about the activities of the military and FAA. We also learn something about ourselves, and it is this: For every one talking head on television that preaches concession, there are a thousand that refuse to go quietly into the night.