United 93: A Social Conscience and the Ease of Historicism (A 10th Anniversary Retrospective)
By David Ryan.
Before United 93 opened ten years ago, the film’s previews were greeted with varying degrees of stress and grief. Although some theaters threatened to pull the previews to allay the pathos of its audience (the wounds still freshly felt in their hearts), only one New York theater reportedly did. When the film debuted, audiences and critics conceded great unease with watching a catastrophic historical drama five years after the actual events. This matter between personal pain and history speaks to the social function of films and, to a larger extent, the human desire for stories – particularly tragic stories. Since early antiquity, stories have served an important psychological desire and fulfilled a special social role.
Overwhelmingly, critics reacted favorably to United 93 and praised writer-director Paul Greengrass for his artistic vision and his extraordinary sensitivity to the families of the victims of flight 93. Greengrass reportedly met with the various families early in the process to understand their needs to develop an empathic understanding for their circumstances. In this sense, we can surmise that Greengrass wasn’t interested in just creating a mimetic statement on the hijacking of Flight 93 in the Aristotelian sense. Rather, when he became interested in understanding the needs of one specific part of his intended audience – the families and air traffic controllers – he moved beyond the normal assumptions and choices directors make regarding the hypothetical audience they think will see their films. Greengrass used his gained insight into the psychology of the families as well as the precise knowledge of the air traffic controllers to craft his script and shoot his film.
What is clear is that Greengrass embraces his role as a storyteller. He understands that historical dramas must be clear in order to bring the facts to life and knows that art can influence our critical context for understanding events that defy easy explanation. Quite remarkably, the clear and jarring representations of this hijacking are never divorced from political or ideological statements or questions. To Greengrass’s credit, he neither retreats from representing the ugliness of violence nor does he shy away from standing against terrorism.
Individuals as Social Carriers
Greengrass presents his story in two halves. For nearly the first hour, United 93 focuses on how people work within complex social systems that make air travel possible. The interconnectedness of the airline industry and air defense are illustrated with scenes showing how interpersonal group dynamics create social connections at the Newark Airport, the base from which Flight 93 was to make its run to San Francisco. What is important is that we recognize and even appreciate the complex machinery of American society and the roles people play in running social structures and supporting institutions. In effect, Greengrass shows us the marvels of how one facet of an ordinary American city works in extraordinary fashion.
In a shrewd artistic move, Greengrass allows us to see and hear how these systems are held together by linguistic and rhetorical norms. The film triumphs in small yet meaningful ways when we witness ordinary people using language in its various capacities. From small talk, gossip, passing information, giving and barking orders, and, finally, a call to action, we see and hear people using language to navigate their way through social norms that undergird and shape society. For Greengrass, language (and its relationship to culture) is the primary means by which people develop relationships and create a robust and vibrant society. In Greengrass’s vision, Western ideals and practices are presented in its varied splendor: the openness of travel is illustrated by people of varying ethnicities and social classes working together to uphold society. Greengrass appears to argue that this dynamism relies on an eclectic principle that commands people to find things of value outside of themselves and somehow make these disparate things cohere.
Pluralistic Thinking, Monistic Actions
The pluralistic energy spent to create and sustain this economy becomes, for Greengrass, a mastertrope of the West – where private enterprise prospers by working with civilian and, to a lesser extent, military authorities. By focusing on the social customs and work habits of the public, Greengrass seems to be saying two things. First, this collective effort creates a pluralism at odds with the theocratic extremism of the terrorists. Second, Greengrass is showing what the US has to lose. From the film’s perspective, America is composed of a plurality of interests focused by common group dynamics that stand in antithesis to the monistic militancy of the hijackers.
In terms of substantive characterization, United 93 offers little for the passengers and even less for the hijackers. The hijackers are, for the most part, determined killers, and their one-dimensional portrayal helps us understand that their behavior goes beneath most behavioral norms to subvert or destroy their enemies. For this group, the loftier their goals, the lower they are willing to sink. What is clear is that the film never veers from the perspective that their plans and actions are not justified.
Quite interestingly, in a film in which group dynamics take center stage, individual responses take on varied and even contradictory meanings. For instance, there is a fleeting moment when the terrorist pilot, Ziad (Khalid Abdallah), seems to flinch – perhaps having second thoughts about their plans. As he sits in his passenger seat and seems to delay his action, he is prodded by the youngest and perhaps most vicious member (Jamie Harding). In group conspiracies, individual responses are reigned in by intense social pressure because individual choice does not exist. When Ziad becomes visibly nervous, our unrealistic attitude is simple: we want him to yield to his apparent fears and scuttle the plans. But no such action manifests, and when the terrorists execute their plans, he takes control with renewed fervor.
Outside of the cockpit, group dynamics collapse into confusion, hysteria and frenzy. Under the threat of a bomb, the mostly American passengers comply with their captors, but under severe pressure, this group manages to communicate and formulate a plan to overcome the hijackers. In these scenes, Greengrass allows us to admire the resilience and will of the captives as they work to oppose these trained, willing killers to wrestle control of the plane.
However, in a curious move, the English director seems to reserve special scorn for European diplomacy; as the American passengers become further emboldened as they learn of the attacks on the Twin Towers, one passenger of mysterious European origins expresses his preference for placation. His unexpected individual response provokes uneasy laughter because his portrait (and delusion) is contrasted with the moral agency of the Americans who wish to overcome their attackers. As a character, this European seems more symbolic than substantive, for, in a thematic context, he shows the dangers of idleness, the perils of ignorance, and the corruption of capitulation. The last we see of him, he’s being subdued as he is trying to warn the terrorists of the impending American charge. For Greengrass, this kind of individuality is traitorous because it betrays the will of innocent hostages.
Because this film is more interested in explaining the power and influence of social norms, most of the primary characters are identified by their social roles: they are pilots, flight attendants, air traffic controllers, military liaisons, passengers, and terrorists. We observe them in their uniforms and suits, listen to their varying styles of discourse, and study their physical behaviors in order to understand how people of varying interests interrelate. For the first part of the film, Greengrass is interested only in exploring the civil manners of the characters. Consequently, nearly all of the characters go without much personal identification and lack distinction, so identifying with the characters beyond their social roles is difficult. In Greengrass’s view, these characters appear to be carriers of their social positions in which the autonomy of individuals are hard to distinguish from the complicated social system of which they are a part. Indeed, this vagueness could be how the hijackers see their victims – merely as social agents of a broadly defined Western system.
Although the intent is for their stories to engage us, the lack of personal connection to the characters sometimes limits our response. However, because fear and suffering shows the limits of humanity and because these characters are based on real people, their tragic circumstances help us recognize what we value when we watch them suffer and perish. Recognizing our fears is one way to discover what we value. We value freedom and cherish innocent human lives; and when we see these things destroyed, we lose a part of ourselves. This reactive process, I think, is what Aristotle meant by his catharsis-thesis. United 93’s tragic narrative arouses pity and fear for what was lost and for what could be lost.
The Second Half
In the second half of the film, Greengrass makes a reasonable political stand. He wants us to witness the extremes to which fanaticism leads, so, on this stage, there are two truths to contemplate: (1) there are the goals of the murderers and (2) the plight of their innocent victims. To illustrate this point, the film arranges the facts as coherently as possible by relying on chronology, dramatic irony, and historical hindsight, all of which are stitched to some compelling storytelling. Greengrass makes sense of “what actually happened” by having us witness the violence of the terrorists and the suffering of the passengers so we may purge our own sorrow and, perhaps, galvanize us to protect what we have.
In order to accomplish these thematic goals, United 93 makes one larger argument: the film asks us to see the fanaticism of these terrorists as a danger not just to America but to the entire world because these terrorists will kill anyone to actualize their goals. Within the context of the film, there is no denying this thesis. And when the passengers break into the cockpit and fight for control of a spiraling plane, we fully grasp Greengrass’s point as the film closes.
As aforementioned, Greengrass consulted many of the families of the passengers and earned their blessings; he even employed some of the real air traffic controllers to bring a greater authenticity to his effort. To be certain, his effort is an engaged one, one based on closing the gaps between reality and fiction, realism and storytelling. What makes Greengrass’s work so special is that he understands that movies are neither separated from reality nor history – “that artistic intention and cinematic production are social and rhetorical practices that do not merely reflect reality but help audiences create and re-create reality. Because audiences do not always have access to the facts or have knowledge of the larger sequence of events, they will study fictive texts and construct a personal understanding of historical events.” What is problematic, then, is that a rhetorical and cinematic expression of reality (with its use of tropes and other forms of symbolic figures) often becomes an object of historical and popular study.
Monism and Characterization: Imperialism’s Determination
Greengrass’s engaged approach is certainly effective and compelling, but the film contains a critical problem. Where this film slides from clarity to simplicity is in its effort to explain the personal motivations of the hijackers. Because Greengrass doesn’t quite understand these terrorists, he relies on a general kind of historicism to explain their actions. The martial plans of the terrorists are clear, but in a film in which Greengrass isn’t afraid to embellish carefully, he does little to illustrate their motivations. In his thesis, Greengrass connects explicitly religious practices with terrorism, for we witness the hijackers praying and praising Allah in one scene and attacking their victims in another. Because of these explicit connections, the audience is left with few options but to absorb the simple notion that religion (more specifically, belief) alone makes its followers susceptible to horrific acts of terrorism. This explanation is, of course, contestable.
In his public statements, Greengrass has argued that Islam has been taken over by a gang of criminals. His comments imply a political-criminal movement that exploits religious practices as one prominent reason for the attacks. Unfortunately, within the context of the film, what we neither see nor understand is how these terrorists either see or interpret our world. We do get an inkling of how they objectify Western subjects, but we don’t understand what made these men susceptible to committing terrorist acts. We witness only their behavior and the circumstances under which they execute their plans. Perhaps Greengrass is arguing that fanaticism has stripped these men of their complexity as human beings – that their imperialistic ideology prevents them from seeing beyond their own desires. Unfortunately, no alternative portrait of Islam (in its many formations) is presented in this story to help audiences understand the careful distinctions Greengrass has tried to make in his public statements.
However, I suspect western audiences have had few problems with the film’s portrayal of the terrorists. But if the American characters are inscribed by the society in which they live (as Greengrass illustrates emphatically), then so are these hijackers. According to the film’s line of reasoning, the broader formations of Islamic culture are carried by these killers; after all, these mostly college-educated Sunnis represent a certain demographic in the Islamic world. Here, according to the film, there is no middle ground in Islam with its perspectives toward non-Muslim cultures. All must perish.
Empathy and Humanism
Clearly, there are many more complicated factors at play than Greengrass’s one-dimensional portrayal suggests. Understandably, Greengrass’s humanistic mission to understand the pain and sorrow of the families did not extend equally to comprehending the vicious acts of these terrorists. As portrayed, the characters are purposely alienating because their acts run contrary to Western practices, and they are perpetrated by people from another religion and race. Because Greengrass draws some ironies by juxtaposing the personal religious practices of the terrorists and their captives, he points out some commonalities as well. However, these differences are a part of an obvious contrast in which race appears to have become an important rhetorical trope in this story. In United 93, race, language and cultural beliefs signify our differences and explain our social contrasts. Rather than delve into the reasons for their anti-modernity and anti-westernism, Greengrass leaves us with a historicist portrayal of these Muslims that leaves some key questions unanswered.
Truly, Greengrass’s ability to inform and control us by the gravity of his moral compass is remarkable because he asks us to ponder this vision: in a world with Muslim extremists in charge, we have nothing but their destructive pride of torture and massacre to expect. Though few would disagree with this argument, the problem is that Greengrass limits the field of inquiry by offering only one potential explanation for the acts of these terrorists when other explanations would also work. Based on his public comments, I suspect Greengrass thinks that the real culprits are the varying social forces that helped shaped these terrorists, and religion is but one critical factor among many. But I understand why he focuses exclusively on religion. If he applied his representation of America equally to these terrorists, he, then, is stitching a bleak portrait of the varying formations of Islamic culture.
Unfortunately, rather than illustrate what he thinks made these men susceptible to acts of violence, Greengrass chooses to sidestep explaining human motives. Rather, he awashes his characters in a historicism that asks the audience merely to look at their situation to judge them. General kinds of historicism often make for useful stereotypes that serve the convenience of the plot; unfortunately, however, a historicist approach often fails to nurture a deeper understanding of human motives – particularly extremist ones. No doubt, United 93 helps us better understand what happened on September 11th because Greengrass helps us put into perspective what is under attack: American character, commerce and community. But what this film lacks is an insightful explanation of the 9/11 attackers and their belief in the power of militancy. Greengrass fails to explain their anger, hatred, and justifications in finding justice and dignity in the death of others. Good docudramas offer compelling psychological portraits of their characters, but United 93 scrimps on characterization in favor of historicism. Nevertheless, the film is a triumph of technique and vision. Graphically realistic, this film is a disturbing portrait of the flashpoint of this war.
David Ryan is Academic Director and Faculty Chair of the Master of Arts of Professional Communication program at the University of San Francisco where he teaches courses in film criticism, strategic and technical communication, and rhetoric studies. His essays have appeared in Rhetoric Review and many journals and books, including his latest, “Antilochus’s Burden: the Crisis-Catharsis Rhetoric of Bereavement Messages” in Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to the War Film (June 2016).
 I raise this issue in my essay on The Hurt Locker.
 In his interviews, Greengrass has asserted that Islam has been hijacked by extremists. Here is an excerpt from one of his interviews: “There were two hijacks on the morning of 9/11. There was the hijack that we know about, the hijack of the airplanes, of the innocent people, that flew into the buildings and all that terrible death and destruction that occurred as a result. But there was a second hijack that took place that day. The hijack of a religion by a bunch of young men who twisted and perverted it in order to create a creed and an ideology to justify the slaughter of innocent people, and that’s a hijack that is still out there today. It’s still going on today, and it’s going to be very hard for us to work out what to do to deal with that.”
 Although religion plays a part, so do other kinds of social forces: education, commerce, government sanction, regional geopolitical conflicts, and history. Many scholars point to a symbiosis of extremist European politics (in which terrorism is part of the realpolitik) and extremist educational practices of certain sects of Islam to argue that religion alone isn’t the culprit. For instance, the political alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and secular socialist groups is not unheard of when anti-war marches were at their peak in Europe in 2005. We must also remember, there are millions of Muslims living in Europe, three million alone in England and rising. Not surprisingly, the 9/11 hijackers, the London bombers and Spanish train bombers were recruited largely from European cells. In this context, the European character aboard flight 93 takes on a different shade—a European who is a willing dupe, a placating co-conspirator who has a hand in his own destruction.