United 93 isn't controversial, the reaction to it is

Posted: May 08, 2006 8:05 PM
"United 93" surprised me. I was expecting a large dose of sentimentality, of sugary vignettes from the passengers' lives, along with a musically enhanced final battle scene. The actual film is so much better than that. It is strikingly realistic. In fact, it contains not a trace of cheap sentiment, but rather transfixes viewers with its sharp realism. Ordinary people are seen doing quotidian things -- airline pilots chat about training schedules, businessmen call their offices, flight attendants delight in a lightly loaded plane. It is so true to life it feels almost like a documentary.

Part of that realism, and the most brilliantly executed scene in the film, is the depiction of the second plane slamming into the World Trade Center. This image is so much a part of our national psyche now that one might think a cinematic portrayal would seem somehow cliched. But to the contrary, Paul Greengrass has managed to convey the shock and horror of that moment and remind us again of what a savage enormity was committed against us that day.

The film also captures the confusion and chaos that gripped air traffic controllers, the military and other officials forced to respond to an unprecedented emergency. We are reminded of the rumors that flew, of the inevitable misinformation and of the difficulty in establishing lines of communication. Above all, like a basso continuo beneath the action on screen, is the pulsing reality of fear.

What, then, are the critics talking about when they describe this film as "controversial"? The Washington Post ran a front-page story called "When Hollywood Makes History: Invented Details in 'United 93' Raise Real Questions." What were these "invented details"? In the film, the terrorist piloting United 93 places a photo of the Capitol on the plane's console. This is incorrect, the Post intones, since the 9/11 Commission said investigators could not determine whether the White House or the Capitol was the actual target. Is that it? No, the film also shows the terrorists killing the pilot and co-pilot, whereas we don't know if they really did that. Finally, the passengers are depicted as breaching the cockpit, whereas the tapes leave that issue unresolved.

Big deal. These are trivial details in the scheme of things. We do know that the ordinary Americans on that flight who found themselves in the midst of a nightmare were able to gather their wits about them, assess the situation and act -- all within a very few minutes. They were tragically unable to save their own lives, but they saved the lives of many others, as well as one of (and it doesn't really matter which one) the key symbols of our nation. President Bush should consider awarding each one a posthumous Medal of Freedom.

The Post didn't cavil about historical details in "Fahrenheit 9/11" on its front page. That film was a tissue of lies and distortions from start to finish. The paper didn't protest the tendentious misrepresentations in "Munich." Why now?

It seems that some people are worried about "United 93" not because they think it isn't true but because they know it is and don't want Americans reminded of the merciless enemy we face. Philip Martin, writing in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, explained that he does not intend to see "United 93" because "I might experience some of the same feelings I felt on September 11 all over again. And I don't want to be angry like I was then -- I don't want to hate the terrorists who committed these crimes."

I wonder, did that sentiment also infect the people who rate movies? "United 93" is rated R. In theory, no one under 17 can be admitted without a parent (though these rules are widely flouted). Yet the same people gave "Scary Movie 4" a PG-13 rating. According to Kids-In-Mind.com, an Internet movie guide for parents, "Scary Movie 4" contains crude depictions of homosexual sex, oral sex between a man and a woman, a woman using the bathroom in full view of a room full of people, etc, etc.

I took my 12- and 10-year-old boys to see "United 93" after consulting Kids-In-Mind. There is obviously some violence, but it is far from the kind that is offered for voyeuristic thrills in many Hollywood productions. It is mind-boggling that the Motion Picture Association of America thinks 13-year-olds should see the trashy "Scary Movie" and be barred from "United 93."

Take your kids. They need to see the face of the enemy.

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