As United 93 Opens At Tribeca Festival, Shock, Pain, Culture

By 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 25, four news vans, an immensely long red carpet and a gaggle of conspiracy theorists had gathered around the Ziegfeld Theater for the Tribeca Film Festival’s premiere of United 93. People calling themselves part of the 9/11 Truth Movement distributed leaflets—they were quickly banned across the street—and yelled at a man walking his dog.

Jason Bermas wore a maroon hoodie with white letters that read “Investigate 9/11.” He spoke into his friend Dylan Avery’s camera at the entrance to the red carpet: “This film is totally ‘nonfiction’”—yes, he made scare quotes with his fingers—“based on the 9/11 Report.”

The crowd swelled. In the press line, a WB11 reporter turned to a UPN9 reporter and said, “I couldn’t find one person that was negative.”

Jamie Harding, an English actor who plays one of the hijackers, sauntered down the carpet. He said he spent two weeks studying suicide bombers “to try to understand what it’s all about.” Well, then, what is it all about? “That’s a whole different conversation,” Mr. Harding said. “Everybody has their own opinions.” And what were his opinions? “I’ll keep them to myself,” Mr. Harding said.

Limos arrived, and filmgoers. “I’m kind of somber, and kind of—what’s that word?” said Debbie Lanham, 50, of Baltimore, describing her feelings on the way in. “When you go to a funeral home? In observance.”

And then the movie began.

“CAN YOU IMAGINE HOW HORRIBLE it was to die in those buildings and on those planes?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin in the Zacarias Moussaoui trial closing arguments on April 24.

Can’t you? “Who among us doesn’t think about that day,” asked Paul Greengrass in the press materials for United 93, “and wonder how it must have been and how we might have reacted?”

If the culture—and criminal-prosecution—industries are to be believed, dying by terrorist is all you think about. With less reason than ever, Americans now seem to think more and more about the humiliating—and often Islamist-related—ways in which they might be surprised.

One nice thing that might be said of United 93, though, is that it gives relief to film critics, who are always wary of giving away endings. Hey: You already know how it ends.

A&E’s television version, Flight 93, aired in January 2006, ended this way.

Men stood at the edge of a strangely small crater. Little things were burning. Two men in suits: “The plane in there?” Two firefighters: “We don’t know yet.” They talked. Suits: “Talking about a 757. It’s a huge airplane.” Firefighters, with resentment: “Yeah, we know. You can help us look for it if you like.” Some scenes of babies and homes passed. With a handkerchief, one of the suits picked something up, and then put it back. He went further into the woods. The camera flew up to reveal light streaming through the trees.

Fade to white. Then, again, the sky. The camera sank down to a crash site again, surrounded by firetrucks. The greenery faded, replaced by autumnal browns and reds; the giant black hole was still there. Winter, snow: a giant black hole. Spring came. All was green, the hole gone.

Yes. The highest-rated program in A&E’s history sucked from stem to stern, from script to direction. It sucked like a Lifetime movie about baby-stealing or organ theft. It sucked as electrifyingly as Richard Corliss’ review in Time magazine, the April 17 edition, of Mr. Greengrass’ film.

Mr. Corliss attacked the Manhattanites who objected to seeing the United 93 trailers in city theaters. “Perhaps those who saw the trailer,” he wrote, “didn’t realize that this was the one flight, of the four hijacked that day, with an inspiring ending. This was the one on which the good guys, following passenger Todd Beamer’s John Wayne-like invocation, ‘Let’s roll,’ foiled the bad guys.”

John Wayne, even! But that isn’t true in the film. “What are we waiting for, let’s roll, let’s go already,” near-whispers a passenger, presumably Beamer—time isn’t taken to introduce the characters—in United 93, well before the assault on the cockpit. That was just after a fellow passenger said, “Baby, I don’t wanna be here” on the phone. That was just after the passengers subdued a panicky, seemingly European man in coach who didn’t want to fight back.

Meanwhile, the hijackers in the cockpit had attached a picture of the Capitol building to the plane’s yoke. (The 9/11 Commission Report described the hijacker-pilot’s intention this way: His “objective was to crash his airliner into the symbols of the American Republic.”) At best, that sure is one tricky way to navigate at 500-plus m.p.h.

“The saga of this flight,” wrote Mr. Corliss, “makes for, in 9/11 terms, a feel-good movie.”

Actually? In 9/11 terms, Scary Movie 4’s send-up of War of the Worlds makes for a feel-good movie. Watching the earth close in through a plane’s windshield feels bad.

Anyway. Universal didn’t need the theater previews. The trailers were running constantly on TV by then. They were running concurrently with the ads for the remake of Poseidon, the terror-ship with a high body count, and with those new Jetta ads, in which hipsters in their cars chat about useless American meaningless things, until they are shaken from their First World stupor by a sudden collision, a car accident reminiscent of that brutal surprise in Adaptation.

(Andrew Keller, of the firm that created the ads, explained them by saying to Business Week that “The Jetta has been about hanging with friends and Jetta owners tell us that hanging with friends is extremely important to them.”)

(In a recent South Park episode, “Cartoon Wars,” a riff on Comedy Central’s banning the show’s depiction of Muhammad, a character playing the president of the Fox Network put it this way: “It’s so easy to put terrorism out of mind until one of its victims is staring you in the face.”)

And there were the United 93 posters: an airplane sweeping in mid-turn, viewed, ridiculously, through spokes of the Statue of Liberty’s crown. At the United Artists Court Street Stadium 12 in Brooklyn, that poster hung in a pair, on a high floor, with the poster for the new Oliver Stone film. Mr. Stone’s poster just depicts two tall black towers with sky around them and, in red type, “World Trade Center.” Coming soon! Going soon!

“THESE THEMES AND SETTINGS MAY LOOK like unfamiliar ground for Martin Amis,” said a statement by that author’s publisher recently, in advance of publication of “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta” in the April 24 New Yorker. (It was, uncomfortably enough, a theme issue of the magazine, called “Journeys.”) “But in fact he is returning to his central preoccupation: the nature of masculinity, and the connections between male sexuality and violence.”

For Mr. Amis, the nature of masculinity is to be a dick. His Mohamed Atta al-Sayed—a hijacker of American Airlines 11—is a man who hasn’t crapped in four months, who plays a creepy undermining trick on his fellow terrorists, and who might not really be brimming with religious conviction. Mr. Amis decided that something mysterious lurked in Atta’s trip to Portland, Me., and next-day flight back to Boston—not something so simple as an instruction to enter Boston’s Logan Airport from another plane, entering the world of airports at a less security-minded location. In Maine, he went to Pizza Hut; to Wal-Mart; to a drive-through A.T.M.

It would be lovely, Mr. Amis’ story suggests, if all these terrorist folks just didn’t believe what they say they do, or that, at least, only a few had enough conviction to join them. (Not that extreme radical Islam doesn’t have its washouts. “Everybody know [sic] that I’m not 9/11 material,” Mr. Moussaoui said to the judge in his plea hearing.) John Updike suggests he thinks so too.

“Those people out there,” ponders the Secretary of Homeland Security in Mr. Updike’s forthcoming novel, Terrorist. “Why do they want to do these horrible things? Why do they hate us? What’s to hate?” (George W. Bush asked much the same thing on Sept. 20, 2001—he had a pre-prepared answer, however.) In Terrorist, a boy, assuring himself of his Islamic faith in run-down New Jersey, easily becomes the content tool of a terror cell. “He did this Allah thing all by himself,” explains his mother. “I guess a boy needs a father, and if he doesn’t have one, he’ll invent one. How’s that for cut-rate Freud?”

Actually, it’s decent enough—and it’s there that the culture industry does the dirty work that it disavows. “[M]emories of humiliation make people feel entitled to discharge aggression in destructive acts,” wrote Freud scholar and academic Jonathan Lear in The New York Times in February 2003.

By Mr. Lear’s terms, United 93, in particular, does accomplish something: It rouses its audience by recalling terror and its humiliations. (The film is rated R, incidentally, “for language, and some intense sequences of terror and violence.” Sure: some?)

“In the commonplace attenuated version of psychoanalytic theory that most of us have unthinkingly accepted,” wrote Barbara Ehrenreich in 1987, in the foreword to Klaus Theweleit’s 1977 Male Fantasies, “fascism is ‘really’ about something else …. ” That book, she wrote—it’s a psychoanalytic study of Freikorps soldiers, many of whom became the muscle for the Nazis—contains the simple proposition “that the fascist is not doing ‘something else,’ but doing what he wants to do.” But that idea has long since evaporated, to great intellectual detriment.

“The roots of Sept. 11 lie as much in panicked masculinity as they do in religion,” the critic Laura Miller wrote in Salon last year. But if that sort of cheap psychoanalysis was effective, we’d chalk up Osama bin Laden’s jihad to the death of his own father in a twin-engine plane, which was piloted by an American when it crashed.

The truth—and the Freudian truth—is just not so conducive to useful and convenient fictions. “Dear Professor Einstein,” began a letter of Freud’s from September 1932. He wrote: “You express astonishment at the fact that it is so easy to make men enthusiastic about a war and add your suspicion that there is something at work in them—an instinct for hatred and destruction—which goes halfway to meet the efforts of the warmongers. Once again, I can only express my entire agreement.”

FOR THOSE WHO PREFER TO INDULGE their terrorism fantasies in a medium a bit less highbrow, there’s the forthcoming graphic-novel version of the 9/11 Commission Report. In advance excerpts, the book shows the planes plowing into the Pentagon with Batman-style sound-effect bubbles: Blam! It looks like some cunning satire of our police-procedural/orange-alert era. It is not.

At United93Movie.com—United93.com is an Oklahoma boys’ soccer team Web site—there were once long, contentious message-board threads about heroism and the troubles of depiction. Shortly after noon on Easter Sunday, they were hacked by someone calling himself Turkman_69—he left fairly inscrutable messages that mentioned Islam—and now there is nothing there. Universal’s site was about as well protected as American skies once were— the servers were running five-year-old Apache software, and the forums were run on four-year-old software, according to a computer-security expert who examined the site, none of which guaranteed anything against intrusion.

(Oh, those site developers, guilty of living in a gentler time; their imaginations failed them too. They were blindsided by an unthinkable terrorist. Will their lives ever be the same?)

On the same day the jury began deliberations to possibly make, via execution, an Arab-world martyr of Mr. Moussaoui, CNN.com ran a poll to which more than 34,000 people responded. “Do you believe,” the network asked, that “the Bush administration has done enough to capture or kill Osama bin Laden?” Even though 5,500 people voted yes, it surely couldn’t be ignored that the government actually hasn’t captured or killed him. So wasn’t that “yes” just a misplaced fatigue vote?

Now Mr. Moussaoui may be the only person on the Eastern seaboard who does not fantasize and replay his own death—a private resolution perhaps granted by an overly intimate understanding of the drive to murder. (Surely not a good trade.)

Last April, the judge explained to him in that plea hearing that the first four counts “essentially”—she put it gingerly—“expose you to the possibility of a death sentence.”

Those counts, if they did not result in death by injection, could also expose Mr. Moussaoui to a fine of up to $250,000, plus a fee of $100, she was forced to disclose to him. “I wonder where I will get the money,” Mr. Moussaoui said.

—Additional reporting by Amy L. Odell As United 93 Opens  At Tribeca Festival,  Shock, Pain, Culture