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United 93, Not

This past weekend we went to see the latest Spike Lee Joint, "Inside Man".

Capsule review: It's enjoyable. There are holes in the story you could drive an armored truck through, but then most movies like this have holes like that. You either are willing to park the truck and forget about it, or you aren't.

Denzel Washington is brilliant. The supporting cast is great except... why the hell does Jodie Foster keep getting work? Face it: she's a lousy and therefore particularly unconvincing and uninteresting actor. I don't get it. I guess it's just me.

The best thing about the movie, in my view, is its New York City "flava". What's especially good is the way Lee captures the manner in which New Yorkers deal with each other. There's a peculiar thing about New York City, see... it probably happens other places too, I can't say... but all the different kinds of people... everybody is aware of all the "strange people" living and working around you, people from foreign lands with funny clothes and accents and behaviors... it's not like we are somehow "color blind" or "origins blind" or anything like that. Everybody has their secret theories about what these "strange people" are like "as a general rule".

But the thing is, we are willing to do business with each other, whatever that business might be -- buying your morning paper, renting your vacant apartments, working out the details of confronting a hostage situation -- it doesn't matter. There's business to be done here so you go ahead and get it done with anybody who's interested in doing business with you. You keep your effed-up, ignorant opinions to yourself on account of you know they will only get in the way of doing business. It's not a bad system, actually. It would be better if we were all angels and such, but we're not, so the best thing after that is doing business with each other.

Also: my friend remarked after the movie: "I look forward to the day when so much time has passed that we can no longer see villains with dark connections to the Nazi past." And how. I'm not giving anything away here since, if you have half a brain, you will figure that one out about three seconds after you meet the character in question. I mean, what else could it be but a "secret from the Nazi past"?

Anyway, before the Main Feature, we got the Coming Attractions. One of them was the trailer for "United 93".

As I watched it, I had to ask myself: "Why in God's name would anybody think I'd want to see this movie?"

Here's the thing. I don't automatically reject the notion of seeing a movie about a bunch of people who I know from the beginning are doomed. Take for example, I dunno, "The Blair Witch Project". Going in, I was perfectly aware that all of the main characters were Doomed, Doomed, I Say. Didn't stop me from enjoying the movie. Granted, the usual shtick is to have our heroes struggle against adversity and then (some of them, at least) ultimately survive the struggle, but you don't have to do it that way.

But here, with "United 93", there is too much rage at the fact that the mess these poor people found themselves in was entirely preventable.

In the trailer, there is a brief scene that clearly indicates one poor sap almost missed the flight. He hurries onto the plane just as the flight attendant is getting ready to close the door. Under normal story circumstances, you can imagine yourself thinking, oh, the poor guy, bad luck, he should have missed the plane. You ache for him. But my response here was: what a stinking waste.

In an earlier post, I wrote at length on the section of 9/11 Commissions report that dealt with United 93. Never mind that the whole day, despite the Bush Administration's distortions on the subject, actually could have been prevented; if anybody in a position of authority had used his head on that morning, at least the hijacking of United 93 could probably have been prevented. Or, at least, the "battle for United 93" would have taken place before the hijacking was successful, when the passengers and crew actually had a chance to save themselves.

But no, idiocy abounded, and so these poor people found themselves in a hopeless situation.

I don't doubt that the passengers and crew of United 93 faced their desperate situation with courage; they therefore deserve the truth being told about them. The way the story has been presented to our culture, these people were brave because they chose to save those of us down here on the ground from more death and destruction. Well, they undoubtedly did save us from more death and destruction, but let's be real: they were trying to save their lives and get back to their loved ones. They knew what the hijackers had in mind. They knew that if they didn't do something, they were going to be plowed into some Important Building somewhere. Given that knowledge, who the hell wouldn't try to do something, anything, to try to keep it from happening?

I know saying all this makes me sound like the Grinch Who Stole the Heroic Act, or something. But I admire and pity those people who were on United 93, and I think they deserve some honesty here. Nobody believes for a minute that their final phone calls with their loved ones were peppered with heroic declamations about doing what they had to do for the sake of the country. They were saying what they needed to say to their loved ones, assuming that they probably wouldn't see each other again. That's what people do under circumstances that make it pretty clear they are going to die.

Because here's the deal about being a hero: you have to be able to choose to become one; if it's a matter of necessity for your own survival, it isn't heroism, is it? There isn't the requisite element of sacrifice that defines being a hero. Under the circumstances, the passengers and crew of United 93 had no choice but to try to take the plane back. They were doing it as a perfectly reasonable if desperate act to try to save themselves. And yet the story we are told is one of heroism.

All of which would be fine if the whole thing hadn't been a case of incompetence on the part of the Bush Administration. I'm sorry to harsh everybody's mellow about this, but let's be real. Those poor people died doing their best trying to make up for the incompetence of the people who were supposed to be protecting them from this sort of thing. It's in the interest of those who are ultimately responsible for this eff-up to transform what they did into an act of heroism.

I could probably see "United 93" if it told that story. That would be a genuinely tragic story worth seeing. I suppose I could be wrong about this, but I'm pretty sure that's not the story "United 93" tells. Until I hear otherwise, I have to believe the movie exists to perpetuate the great distractive myth created by those who have everything to gain by painting these poor people as heroes rather than as the victims of incompetence and stupidity that they were.

If that's the story this movie tells, the story of the distractive myth, then no way. No way in hell would I see this movie. I couldn't stomach it. It would be a betrayal of everyone who died on that day.


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Maybe this is hyperparsing on my part, but I'm not sure about that characterization of heroism based on choice. I don't know that anybody chooses to be a "hero" to the extent that they're conscious of the heroism of their deeds - while they're doing them, anyway. It seems to me that acts of, say, rescue or retaliation are most often instinctive and branded "heroic" after the fact by somebody else. And I'm not entirely certain that because those folks had no choice but to try to take the plane back that that makes them any less "heroic" - they could just as easily have sat back and resigned themselves to their fate, no? Or ended up doing nothing while arguing among themselves about what they *should* do? But whether this means these folks were cognizant enough of the significance of their actions to therefore act in a "heroic" manner - i.e., pepper their messages to their loved ones with God Bless America and Let Freedom ring, etc. - and thus earn some kind of posthumous Super Patriot award, well, that just seems kitschy to me. And I agree with you that the merchandising of this "heroism" as something to which we all should aspire so as to disguise the whoopsies of our current administration is despicable beyond measure. I just don't know that the merchandising of the act camouflages the heroism of the act itself, is all.

In any event, I have no intention of seeing this film however noble it may be. I don't need a memory jogger for that day; living here, memory jogs are all around me. It's only the death junkies who need to have photos of bodies falling from the towers as their desktop wallpaper so they don't "forget."

Well, it could be hyperparsing on my part, but I think there is a difference between heroism and courage. In my definition of heroism, yeah, you kind of have to choose to sacrifice (or possibly sacrifice, depending on how things go) either life or limb for the purpose of saving (in some manner) other people, or preserving some principle, or something like that.

It's true that the people on United 93 could have just stayed in their seats and let what happened happen. I think it took courage to decide to at least try to save themselves. Especially when you consider that they must have known that at the moment they attacked the hijackers, it was at least somewhat likely that the hijackers would plow the plane into the ground. That is a moment of choice, requiring tremendous courage, like similar moments of choice faced by those poor people in the WTC. They had to choose between jumping or burning to death, but nobody calls those people in the towers heroes for making that courageous choice.

I do think the people on United 93 were incredibly courageous, but I think calling them heroes dilutes the meaning of the word heroism. I don't mean to insult or demean them at all. It's just that I think there is difference between somebody who, say, chooses to throw himself on a box cutter to save the lives of everyone on board, and somebody who throws himself on a box cutter because it's his only chance of saving himself and everybody else on board. And I think that that's a difference very much worth preserving.

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