The New Disaster Movie

How the events of September 11 renewed Hollywood's appetite for destruction

As War of the Worlds was both reviled and praised for exploiting 9-11, United 93 was said to be said—by whom?—to have been made "too soon." But how could the movie be too soon, when the story itself was twice dramatized this season on TV?

Discovery Channel's The Flight That Fought Back annotated re-enactments with interviewed family members; a few months later the docudrama Flight 93 attracted 6 million viewers, the most watched program in A&E history. (Less immediate and more intimate than United 93, Flight 93 was specifically designed for home viewing: At the heart of the movie are the agonizing phone conversations between the passengers and their distraught families, most located in beautiful suburban neighborhoods.)

Although not nearly as artful or coherent as United 93, Flight 93 received generally respectful reviews and was praised by the conservative National Review as a metaphor for the war on terror: "The bad guys wield box cutters, invoke the name of Allah, and kill people; the Americans vote, say the Lord's Prayer, and fight back." The movie was not only appreciated for its realness but its politics.

A ritual ordeal: United 93
photo: Jonathan Olley/
A ritual ordeal: United 93

Considering how frequently the actual Flight 93 was invoked by Bush in late 2001 and throughout 2002, a White House screening for United 93 has been conspicuously absent. Still, the movie did secure an early, enthusiastic endorsement from Rush Limbaugh. The talk show star characterized United 93 as "inspirational" while calling for the sort of leadership shown aboard the flight and describing his own experience of watching the movie: "The overwhelming emotion I had was sheer anger at the terrorists, bordering on hatred . . . "

Rage strengthened Limbaugh's resolve: "This movie is going to refocus, for those who see it, the exact reason we are in the war on terror." (It's worth noting that Limbaugh almost certainly saw the movie with its original end title, "America's war on terror had begun." Before release, this Pavlovian cue was removed.) Nor was that the only political conclusion that Limbaugh drew. Recognizing Bush's association with Flight 93, Limbaugh attempted to inoculate the president by predicting that only the craziest lefties would use United 93 to scapegoat him.

Throughout the spring of 2002, as the first saber rattling over invading Iraq began, Bush repeatedly cited the heroic sacrifice of the Flight 93 passengers. "They realized that the hijacked plane they were on was going to be used to kill. And they decided to serve something greater than themselves. In this case, they served their country. They said a prayer, they told their loved ones they loved them, and they drove a plane into the ground." Flight 93 was thus recuperated as a glorious defeat, like the Alamo or the Battle of Bataan.

But Greengrass's interpretation of events is secular. He promotes official incompetence over conspiracy, shows hijackers and passengers addressing their God, and eschews nationalist appeals. United 93 even tends to collectivize heroism—a sore point for certain families who maintain that some passengers were more heroic than others. Even the line "Let's roll," first used by Bush as a rallying cry two months after 9-11, is barely heard—and may refer to the use of a serving cart as a battering ram.

United 93 suggests that, rather than patriotic self-sacrifice, the desperate passengers were motivated by self-preservation. They storm the cockpit preparing to take control and land the plane. Flight tapes indicate that the hijackers deliberately crashed the plane before the passengers could breach the cockpit. (Thus, Bush's scenario—"they said a prayer" and "drove the plane into the ground to serve something greater than themselves"—actually more closely describes the terrorists.)

As a commercial moviemaker (rather than say, a historian), Greengrass has his primary contract with the audience. The ordeal must provide catharsis, and the one Greengrass offers is far more primal than Bush's Flight 93 rhetoric: In the gospel according to Greengrass, the passengers not only enter the cockpit but actually appear to kill the hijackers. This thrilling finale is underscored with martial drumbeats. As master manipulator Alfred Hitchcock demonstrated in The Birds, the absence of music would have been enormously disconcerting— let alone the unresolved non-ending Hitchcock gave his absurdist disaster film.

In its climactic moments, United 93 demonstrates a realism that goes to the dark heart of drama itself. This new disaster film may aspire to be more than entertainment, but if it is to fill the multi-plexes, someone will have to pay.

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