United 93: Can We Take It?

If United 93 is to be the first entry in what threatens to become an archival library of depressing movie projects about the tragedies of 9/11, it will pretty much depend on success or failure at the box office, not to mention the tolerance level of an audience that extends beyond the families and friends of the survivors themselves. How much more, a lot of people are already asking, can everyone take?

Certainly there is no escape from the inevitable disaster that befell the 40 courageous passengers and crewmembers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco, the fourth hijacked plane on that fateful day when terrorism erupted on the American landscape. We know what happened. We know how it ends. And still, this sad and gripping movie—revealing the mounting tension of events in “real time” of approximately one hour, 45 minutes—leaves you limp and devastated.

It is not the kind of movie that used to inspire preview audiences on their way out of a “sneak” to jot down reactions like “Give us more like this one!” But United 93 is a much better realized and more professionally executed movie than I expected, and it affects us all. Yes, it happened here!

Writer-director Paul Greengrass leaves nothing to the imagination. From the pre-dawn prayers of the terrorists in a motel room in Newark to the final surge of heroism and honor when the passengers fought to regain control of the plane from their hijackers a little more than 90 minutes after takeoff, you get the anatomy of aggression and rebellion that signifies the dangerous DNA of a terrifying new world of global terrorism. Unaware that three other flights were simultaneously heading for their targets at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the people on Flight 93 were going about their early-morning rituals—men reading newspapers, tourists studying maps of Yosemite, housewives anxious to get home, seniors gloating over photos of their grandkids, pretty flight attendants serving gossip with the breakfast snacks—when the pilots first heard about the chaos at the air-traffic control centers on the ground and the smoke that was encircling Manhattan.

Panic did not implode until the four terrorists on board rose from their seats with a homemade bomb, invaded the cockpit and killed both United pilots, then rerouted the plane toward the nation’s capital. Contacting their families on cell phones and credit-card-activated Airfones, the passengers were stunned, then anguished, then hysterical, finally seizing the need to switch into control mode. The most nerve-frying thing about the whole ordeal, in retrospect, is the confusion, the mixed signals from the F.A.A., the erroneous information and the short-circuitry of the shock waves, on the plane and among both the air controllers and the military. Mr. Greengrass is careful not to affix blame, but a gasp went through the audience when it is finally revealed that the military couldn’t get permission or clearance to dispatch fighter planes to the rescue because nobody could find President George W. Bush. Flight 93 crashed at 10:03 a.m. in a field near Shanksville, Penn. At 10:18 a.m., Dubya finally came to life, ordering military action. All I could think of was the cynical lyrics to the politically satirical Johnny Mercer song, “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands.” Not so funny in this context, but true enough to turn your blood cold.

The production values are excellent. The camerawork captures the claustrophobic action and chaos on board, even the sweat and near-nervous collapse of the four terrorists. Mr. Greengrass avoids sentimentality, even in the intimate last-minute cell-phone goodbyes. A large cast of unknowns contributes strongly to the authenticity of this film. It wouldn’t have the same impact with Brad Pitt as the gay rugby player, Mark Bingham; Tom Cruise as the pilot, Capt. Jason Dahl; or Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan as the brave flight attendants who gathered all of the knives, forks and fire extinguishers for the passengers to use as weapons.

The heroism of the 40 people who made a group decision not to die without a fight really leaves you slack-jawed. I also admire the way every effort has been made to give the film maximum realism with a moment-to-moment naturalism that often seems improvised. The actors are all salient to the facts amassed in exhaustive research; even the hijackers are perfect. (They were not from Iraq!) All told, United 93 is an exemplary attempt to relive history, inspired and powerful. Personally, I have survived all I want to about 9/11. Isn’t it time to resurface, regroup, reorganize and move on? This is just one aspect of a national tragedy that is still too recent to revisit without anxiety. I don’t want to live—or die—through another one anytime soon.

Andy’s Cuba

For Andy Garcia, The Lost City is a long-time dream come true: a passionate valentine to his native Cuba that recaptures the glamour, sensuality and decadence of Havana in 1958, when it was nearing the end of the Mardi Gras reign of General Batista and shivering under the storm cloud of pre-Castro revolution. You gotta call this one a genuine labor of love. Wallowing in nostalgia in his directorial debut, the fearless and versatile actor (he was last seen on the screen playing Modigliani), who also co-produced it, co-wrote the script and even composed the musical score himself, spent almost 20 years getting The Lost City on the screen. Here at last, the finished product arrives—with mixed blessings. Sincerely conceived and beautifully photographed in lush tropical colors that intoxicate, it’s too long, politically confusing and painfully self-indulgent, loaded with too many tertiary characters and darting from one subplot to the next like a butterfly with hiccups.

The labyrinthine plot revolves around the affluent Fellove family, headed by an upper-class professor of philosophy who abhors the corruption of Batista’s capitalist dictatorship, preaches democratic reform and raises his three sons to support the right causes. Mr. Garcia plays eldest son, Fico, the owner of the glittery El Tropico nightclub, a tourist attraction where the rum flows and the floor shows are lavish. An apolitical observer who never makes waves, enjoys the perks of a fluid economy and records the changing times with his video camera, Fico uses his popular club as a buffer from the winds of revolution. Meanwhile, his handsome younger brothers, Ricardo (Enrique Murciano) and Luis (Nestor Carbonell), are ardent anarchists and violent dissidents who try to overthrow the government, stupidly believing that a Communist revolution will result in freedom and democracy.

After Luis leads a daring assassination attempt—a raid on the presidential palace that lands him in prison and ruins his life—Ricardo heads into the jungles to fight shoulder to shoulder with Che and Castro, and Luis’ gorgeous wife Aurora (played by supermodel Inés Sastre) ends up in Fico’s bed. The wandering plot (culled from a 300-page draft by the great writer G. Cabrera Infante, who died in 2005) features betrayal, disgrace, adultery, suicide and escape, often shifting moods so fast we lose track of the characters. The movie devotes a lot of time to the splashy musical numbers at the El Tropico, but it fails to focus on the poverty-stricken workers whose plight lit the fires of revolution. The pacing is so lazy that after the big war scenes set the screen ablaze with gunfire, there’s still 45 minutes to go.

Wafting through the mélange are ill-fated cameos by Dustin Hoffman as Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky and a scenery-munching Bill Murray as a sarcastic American parasite with no name and obviously no ethnicity, wearing short pants and acting as a court jester and funny sidekick who never says anything funny or relevant at all. The film’s biggest surprise is Millie Perkins, a far cry from the way she looked as Anne Frank back in 1959, but astoundingly good as the Cuban matriarch struggling to preserve her family values and sustain a naïve vision of her sons as the future pillars of a once-proud country.

Cuba, played by the Dominican Republic, leaves us with the scarred impression of a ravaged country, decimated by greed and ignorance. Between Batista and his terror squads, Castro and his Communist insurgents, and Lansky and the mob, Havana changed from a once-placid and civilized Old World paradise to a devastated and lost metropolis. Mr. Garcia makes no secret of his unilateral hatred for Batista, Che and Castro, blaming them equally for turning Havana from a “capital city into a capital sin.” In that respect, his film will be embraced by Cuban exiles in Miami, denounced by others who refused to leave when they could still get out, and considered a big yawn by everyone else. But there is nothing controversial about the sincerity of his ode to the bedrock of his ancestry—a country in ruins, existing now only in shattered memories. His Cuba is like a rose: It has petals and it has thorns, but no matter how you grab it, in the end it grabs you.

A Tiny Bride

Water is the highly praised Indian director Deepa Mehta’s third film in the trilogy that began with Fire and Earth. Set in 1938 in Colonial India during the rise to power of Mahatma Gandhi, it tells the inspiring story of a girl struggling against religious customs that turn her into a prisoner without a future. Chuyia is an 8-year-old child bride whose husband suddenly passes away. According to ritual, her head is shaved and she is taken to an ashram for Hindu widows, where she is expected to atone for the sins of her past that resulted in the death of her husband. In virtual exile, with no hope of escape, she bonds with other widows, old and young, all with their own stories, hopes and fears. Some accept their cruel fate; others are bitter. The indestructible Chuyia is forced to navigate this odd world alone and learn its lessons with obedience and resignation. It is harrowing stuff, to say the least.

Although Water is easily Ms. Mehta’s richest and most complex film, it is still the work of a humanitarian, made with incredible tenderness and real concern for the plight of her female characters. Her finely characterized portraits are textured, moving and wise, from the elderly woman who runs the ashram to the deeply conflicted woman who seeks solace across the dangerous Ganges under cover of darkness. But the film is centered by the sweet, heartbreaking life of young Chuyia, a girl whose innocence cannot be crushed. Her refusal to surrender to her plight elevates Water from a harsh tale of horror into one of hope. The film was forcibly shut down in 2000, following violent protests and riots by fundamentalist Hindus and personal death threats to the director. It took five years to revamp the production in Sri Lanka under strict secrecy and an assumed name. Ms. Mehta’s refusal to throw in the batik is worth celebrating, for she has made a trenchant film for the ages about a degraded psyche that slowly, finally, is raised up by the soaring power of the human spirit.