A few years ago, shortly after 9/11, Bobby Bowden, as any coach tends to do, was thinking of ways to motivate his team. He wanted a theme, a phrase, which would inspire them to action. He (or his staff) picked "Let's Roll", which was supposedly uttered during Flight 93, the one flight that didn't reach a target because a few of the passengers tried to take control of the plane, and ended up crashing it somewhere in Pennsylvania, leaving no survivors.
Some were offended at the thought of using this tragedy as motivation for athletes, although Bowden, a religious man, felt it honored those who made the ultimate sacrifice so others would not die.
Although it's almost five years since the incident occurred, many are still not ready to deal with the moment-to-moment events that occurred during this day. Even so, a film has been made chronicling the subject. This has to be a difficult film to make. Paul Greengrass, the British director of Bourne Supremacy and Bloody Sunday, tackles the subject matter.
The first thing he had to do, of course, was to secure permission from the families to get approval to the story of loved ones. Even this was an issue as some families felt that the media unfairly selected a small handful of passengers and made them into heroes while the rest stood idly by. Some families wanted their loved ones to be heroes as well.
Greengrass's approach has been to tell the story like a documentary. There's even a sensitive issue of how to portray the terrorists themselves. Although the buzz I've heard has suggested that people will be angry at this moment at what was done, there is perhaps a sense that Greengrass didn't want to completely demonize the terrorists, even if he can't exactly make them heroes either.
Watching this film raises the question, can we make entertainment out of a harrowing moment? Daring films routinely do this. Films depicting topics as controversial as rape, incest, child molestation, torture, genocide, cannibalism, and controversial religious themes have all been filmed.
Michael Haneke directed a film called Funny Games about two men that hold a family captive as they torture various members. He dares the audience to walk away, questioning the motives of what audience members will sit through. Gaspar Noe pushes this even further by depicting a rape scene that lasts ten minutes in Irreversible, a scene that men tend to have much more problems sitting through than women. We can tell ourselves that it's fake, movie magic, much like the gruesome gorefest of Kill Bill, Volume 1, and yet, there's a fantastical element of that film that people are willing to judge the film by, that they are unwilling to apply to films that appear closer to real life.
It's even tougher for a film that is indeed based on real life. For some reason, I am morbidly interested in seeing the film. I've watched two films based on the Columbine tragedy, one by Gus Van Sant, called Elephant which offers no pat answer, and crisscrosses in Rashomon style in different timelines, offering many views of the same incident, but not revealing a great deal at each pass, and Zero Day, which follow two teens, which, if it were not about a Columbine-like situation, might have been lauded for its cinema verite representation of high school life. Neither film answers questions of why.
United 93 is likely to be more harrowing given the way it's presented. It already plays on fears people have of flying. We know how this film is going to end. Even the heroics don't save anyone on the plane.
At the time, I had wondered how the terrorists tried to gain control. There was mention of boxcutters. I imagined, at the time, that there must have been someone killed or close to keep passengers in line, then a threat made to the cockpit that if they didn't open up, more people were going to die, and possibly killing the pilots as well. This is a difficult situation to imagine, something that was hinted at, but not much more.
There are even logistical considerations. Think of the other flights which found their target, particularly the second plane. The pilot had to somehow spot which of the twin towers had been hit and try to aim for the other. Having never flown anything, I have no idea how that must be. These are horrid thoughts, and yet, it must have been planned.
I'm interested in watching the film not so much to be entertained. After all, not all films are meant to make one feel good. Instead, I want to see it to get a sense of what really happened. By all accounts, Greengrass has made a film that is respectful and effective.
As it turns out, it's not the only film on the subject matter coming out. Later in the summer, Oliver Stone comes out with his own film. It doesn't explore the flights themselves so much as it deals with the aftermath of the incident and how two people deal with the emotions. That's a safer route less likely to create controversy, though with Stone, you never know.
Ultimately, people are going to make such films and its benefits are sometimes not obvious. Hitler once said that the Third Reich would live for something like ten thousand years. Ironically, the memory of what Hitler did may live for a long time mostly because it has define the modern Jew. Six million Jews. It's a number oft-quoted, but has become the way Jews see their need to survive. It's often not mentioned that several million others were killed including gypsies, Jehovah's witnesses, non-Jewish Poles, homosexuals, people with disabilities. Were their deaths less meaningful? They aren't mentioned very often. And Stalin killed somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty million people.
Despite numbers that make the number killed in 9/11 seem absolutely trivial, there have been plenty of movies about the Holocaust and there will be more, I suspect. A few months ago I saw Downfall about the last days of Hitler in the bunker.
While I doubt 9/11 will serve the same kind of touchstone for Americans as the Holocaust does for Jews, I do think some films will continue to be made on the subject, though since the incident was crystallized into one day, indeed, one morning, over a few hour period, leaving no survivors in the flights themselves, there may be less to talk about as time passes.
Finally, I want to make an odd point, and that's about technology. Ten years ago, the passengers may have been less able to accomplish what they accomplished. Information could be sent from people on the ground letting passengers know that other planes had hit, and messages could be relayed back, as people said their final words. This information may have served to cause passengers, who might otherwise believe they were merely being hijacked, to stay put.
And, think of this. It used to be quite common for planes to get hijacked. Throughout the 70s, planes were routinely being hijacked from the U.S., often to Cuba. It got to the point where the Swiss embassy had documents that the U.S. could fill out to serve as intermediaries for Cuba, and the Cubans would serve sandwiches to the hijackees and charge the state department. Airlines lived with this since they felt it was too inconvenient to passengers to beef up security.
It wasn't until November 10, 1972, when a flight circled near the Oak Ridge National Lab and threatened to run the plane into it, until they finally flew to Cuba where the hijacker was arrested, that Nixon eventually decided security in airports had to be increased.
By the 1980s, you just didn't hear of things like this happening in the United States anymore. Somehow, we had avoided this problem for twenty years more.
Perhaps we can avoid it for twenty more.
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