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The New Disaster Movie

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

The movies love mayhem, and inevitably, the televised events of 9-11 were experienced by millions as a sort of real-life disaster film. Is a movie about 9-11 then a disaster movie about a disaster movie?

Oliver Stone's upcoming World Trade Center is in some sense a remake of the 1974 Towering Inferno; United 93 could be construed as a revisionist sequel to the '70s Airport series. One may be mega and the other meta, but both take their disasters extremely seriously. World Trade Center will likely be promoted as the most significant event in American history since JFK; United 93 is already the first movie since The Passion of the Christ to position itself as something other than entertainment.

Long ago, Susan Sontag wrote that only in the movies could one "participate in the fantasy of living through one's own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself." Yes, and what's more, enjoy it! The old-school disaster movies that glutted theaters during the run-up to the millennium eschewed all but the most perfunctory human interest in F/X spectacles of wholesale urban destruction. Armageddon, Deep Impact, and Godzilla—three of 1998's top-grossing movies behind Titanic—featured the destruction of New York City. Magical thinking perhaps, but on September 11, 2001, Hollywood felt implicated. Was Al Qaeda guilty of intellectual piracy? Within days, studios and studio execs were recalling, recutting, and canceling movies.

The summer of 2004 brought a new sort of disaster film—one with pretensions to responsibility. In old-school disaster films, nature was the terrorist. And while greedy, mendacious, or foolish individuals might be at fault, the system was essentially sound and sufficiently internalized to allow a natural leader to emerge from the chaos, often in uniform. The Day After Tomorrow, however, clumsily inserted itself into the presidential election by transparently blaming the Bush administration for the threat of global climate change.

A few months later, the puppet animation Team America satirized the whole notion of the new socially responsible disaster film, but last summer Steven Spielberg gave the mode its first real hit: War of the Worlds deliberately evoked the trauma of 9-11, complete with political allegory in which a deadbeat dad becomes a heroic solid citizen. The movie was not meant to be seen so much as experienced—or rather, since it reimagined the recent past, re-experienced. (The summer's other great disaster show, Hurricane Katrina, reflected less well on the nation's leadership—as did the recent TV movie Fatal Contact, remaking The Birds in the light of avian flu.)

Poseidon, which occupied the 'plexes last weekend, is an old-fashioned disaster flick, and not only because it remakes the 1972 Poseidon Adventure. Poseidon is pure showbiz and all business: The audience doesn't have to wait for the catastrophe. The movie is total action, predicated on the beauty of mayhem and the suspense of survival. Hundreds of extras may "die" for our amusement, but who cares? In lit-crit terms, Poseidon is a comedy—ending with the construction of two marriageable young couples. Yet the shadow of 9-11 is not altogether absent. The classic Vietnam- and Watergate-inflected disaster films of the early '70s showed heroism under stress practiced by nearly everyone except top public officials; Poseidon's principals include an ex–mayor of New York.

United 93resembles an old-school disaster film in that it has been constructed as an Event everyone must see to fully participate in American life. But unlike Airport or Poseidon, United 93 is not fun—if anything it is a ritual ordeal. Although time will tell how the movie will play overseas, it's possible that the enjoyment demographic is strictly Al Qaeda. Zacarias Moussaoui was reported to have "smiled broadly" when the Flight 93 tape was played during his trial 12 days before Paul Greengrass's film had its premiere at Tribeca.

Why was United 93 made, and why should people want to experience it? Is the movie a commercial enterprise, a form of knowledge, a sort of group therapy? Thanks to Greengrass's brilliant direction, United 93 looks and sounds like a documentary—but it is a dramatic reconstruction. Despite the existent phone calls and flight recording, there can be no absolute certainty of what happened during the flight. The fatal stabbing of the plane's captain and co-pilot, as well as a first-class passenger and one flight attendant, can only be surmised—and yet are witnessed by those who see the movie.

New disaster is experiential and communal. Explicit in its use of real time, United 93 is designed for audience participation. Just as the now notorious trailer distilled the movie's narrative arc (albeit without offering the final catharsis), audiences mimicked the action: Having paid to see Inside Man, unsuspecting viewers had their attention "hijacked." According to some descriptions, the angry patrons at AMC Loews Lincoln Square banded together to yank the trailer.

Since the ending is known, United 93 substitutes anxiety for suspense. Perhaps twice as much screen time is devoted to the FAA and air force command centers as to the plane itself. Is the system working? "We're trying to get the military involved—we're not getting an answer," beleaguered air traffic controllers cry. The military, for its part, can't find the president or vice president. (The spectator may insert a mental cutaway to Bush in Florida, reading "The Pet Goat.") Greengrass forestalls the disaster, wringing maximum tension from the viewer's foreknowledge that the passengers are doomed.

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 Backannotated 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.

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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