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'United 93': A must- or must-not-see?

Sometimes a trailer is a little too good.

I haven’t run across anyone who walks away from the United 93 trailer unrattled. In case you haven’t heard, this is the first big-screen “9/11 movie,” an account of what happened aboard the best-documented hijacked flight, United Flight 93, bound for San Francisco. (I effortlessly missed the TV movie of the same name, whereas I’m agonizing over this. I suppose I just expect tastelessness from movies-of-the week, and set my filters accordingly.) The ordeal of the Flight 93 passengers – who allegedly banded together to overwhelm the hijackers, a heroic act that cost them their lives when the plane went down in rural Pennsylvania – was the most natural story to tell (if natural’s the word). Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy) will be the one telling it. And from the look of the trailer, he may have done a good job. Maybe too good.

I don’t think I believe in right and wrong, when it comes to which stories one ought to tell. Certainly, some stories are more openly pernicious than others; some are downright inappropriate. Some are difficult, but necessary. Apart from the political considerations behind the making of a 9/11 movie, what sort of emotional calculus should the moviegoer perform before choosing to see such a thing?

I can tell you that this trailer left me feeling jelly-legged,queasy, angry, and feeling those red bursts of murderous rage that keptme up nights (along with sheer terror) in the weeks that followed 9/11.We described what we saw on our screens as “like a movie.” And sonaturally, we tried to write ourselves into that movie. Not one of ushasn’t dreamt/nightmared/fantasized about what he/she might have doneaboard that flight. Not one us hasn’t imagined him or herself a victim,a hero, or some combination thereof.

But now there is a movie. And here’s the difficult part:Reality doesn’t furnish us with Jack Ryans and John McClanes. There isprobably no yippy-ky-yay moment in United 93. (Or, at least,there’d better not be. I can’t imagine anything more grotesque.) Thereare merely kinds of death, minor variations on an inevitable catastophethat may define the victims, grant them a modicum of agency, butcertainly don’t redeem them or us or anything. Any definition of”victory” must be revised groundward from the usual, weightlessHollywood norm.

And yet, I’m not sure I want to see that either. I’m tempted to saysuch a thing is beyond fiction, but that’s extraordinarily subjectiveand narrow. Clearly, the Holocaust isn’t beyond fiction. Nor any othergreat, hideous human tragedy we seek to cope with and control throughstory. This is what we do, how we heal. The timing doesn’t feel right,and it may never feel right. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell thetale.

Originally posted March 29 2006 — 9:44 PM EST

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