Writer-director Paul Greengrass’ United 93 has by now been widely—and, I believe, extravagantly—overpraised for not exploiting or sensationalizing the last catastrophic flight of United 93 on that fateful morning of Sept. 11, 2001. But how could he exploit the event if he were not to invent words or actions neither he nor we could ever know? Mr. Greengrass has also been lauded for not using familiar movie stars in all the major roles. But again, what movie star would want to be cast in a role limited to the last 91 minutes of his or her life on earth, with no flashbacks and not even any solitude for soliloquies?
Still, Mr. Greengrass and his associates have fashioned a moderately absorbing spectacle out of a wrenching day in all our lives. If I cannot join in the almost universal acclamation this production has achieved, it is because in the aftermath of 9/11, I have been left with a bitter taste in my mouth from all the guilt incurred in trying to understand the points of view of the hijackers, who some people still describe as “courageous” in their suicidal acts.
I must confess at this point that I was disgusted by the very sight of the actors playing the four characters responsible for the deaths of 33 passengers and seven crewmembers. I prefer to think of these suicide bombers not as heroes or martyrs, but as fascist thugs in the service of Islamic Hitler wannabes.
This is not to say that there was not a conspicuously collective display of patriotic bravery on board the ill-fated United 93, but Mr. Greengrass ends up giving equal time to the hijackers, with the film actually opening with a lingering shot of a hijacker praying before setting out on his murderous mission to board the plane at Newark Airport. Mr. Greengrass reportedly conferred with family members of the deceased United 93 passengers, and it was agreed that the relatively few active participants—mainly the bigger and younger males on the plane—should not be excessively emphasized at the expense of the rest of the passengers. It was agreed also that none of the passengers would go into details of their private lives. The unfortunate consequence of these agreements was that the four hijackers were more individualized than the 40 innocent victims. Indeed, at the film’s climax, a disinterested observer might be left to wonder who one was supposed to root for: the rebellious passengers breaking down the cockpit door or the hijacker seeking to fly the plane into the U.S. Capitol building before he is interrupted.
The more interesting scenes, from my point of view, were those of the reactions on the ground from the various flight-monitoring agencies, both civilian and military. A feeling of sheer disbelief swept across the screen in these scenes, and it is the feeling I recall from that morning as I left for my class at Columbia. There had been a report on CNN of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, but no pictures before I left the apartment that morning. I immediately assumed that it had been a small plane, like the one that had crashed accidentally into the Empire State Building many years before. But when I reached the corner of 89th Street and Madison Avenue, where I was catching a bus to Columbia with my friend, I could see the smoke rising all the way from the far-downtown World Trade Center, which meant it was no small plane. When I got to Columbia, I learned that a second plane had hit the W.T.C., and classes had been canceled.
My friend and I grabbed a cab to go home and, as fate would have it, our driver was a turbaned Sikh. As we disembarked on the wrong side of Central Park because all the transverse roads had been closed for emergency vehicles, my friend quipped that we should consider ourselves lucky that our driver hadn’t crashed the cab into Butler Library. Yet when I pressed the fare money into our driver’s hand, it was clearly shaking—as if he had already anticipated the petty bigotries that would be directed at the completely guiltless Sikh population in the confusing days that followed.
Indeed, I can’t think of anything good that has come out of the wildly successful criminal coup of 9/11. This imaginative touch of evil has only further poisoned our political atmosphere with mistrust and suspicion, undermined our democratic values and driven our maladministered republic into near bankruptcy. Consequently, I am not looking forward to any future cinematic reminders of 9/11. Even the undeniable heroism of the passengers on United 93 doesn’t edify as it should. These people, like all victims of heinous crimes, should never have died as they did. That was all I could think of as I watched the film, and I was not consoled by the fact that pre-flight delays had enabled the passengers on United 93 to make a more informed decision on their fate than was available to the almost completely forgotten victims of the other three homicidally suicidal flights.
Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, from a screenplay by Mr. Puiu and Razvan Radulescu (in Romanian with English subtitles), derives much of its energy and exasperation for its grimly and darkly seriocomic story from the director’s own hospital experience in Romania, and from a self-confessed hypochondria. Mr. Puiu is quoted thusly by David Fear in Time Out New York (April 27–May 3): “There was a real incident several years back … where a patient was taken to six different hospitals, all of which refused to admit him. The driver eventually left the man on the street, and he died a few hours later. It’s indicative of the indifference that characterizes the Romanian health-care system, and having just witnessed that lack of concern firsthand, the story of this unfortunate soul kept coming back to me.”
Dante Remus Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) is gradually revealed to us as a seriously dissipated 63-year-old pensioner living alone in a shabby Bucharest apartment with his three cats. Shortly after we first encounter him conversing with his cats, he feels worse than usual. When the pain from a sudden headache becomes unbearable, he calls on his friendly next-door neighbors for assistance. The couple, Sandu Sterian (Doru Ana) and his wife Miki (Dana Dogaru), tell him what they have always told him: (1) that he should stop drinking, and (2) that he should get rid of his smelly and probably disease-bearing cats. After they leave, he begins feeling even more excruciating pain and calls repeatedly for an ambulance that never seems to come. When he calls his sister, who lives a considerable distance away, she too advises him to stop drinking and reminds him to send her his pension check for rent. We begin to get the picture of a proud, stubborn man who is terribly, terribly alone.
Finally the ambulance arrives, but by then he has collapsed in the bathtub and has to be assisted to the vehicle by the attending woman paramedic, Mioara Avram (Luminita Gheorghiu), and the driver, Leo (Gabriel Spahieu). Smelling alcohol on his breath, Mioara asks Mr. Lazarescu what he has been drinking, and his futile denials resume.
The rest of the film consists of an odyssey in slow motion to three hospitals, each of which is overcrowded to the breaking point by a flood of casualties from a deadly bus accident. By sticking with Mr. Lazarescu through all his ordeals, Mioara slowly emerges as a guardian angel, arguing with a succession of contemptuously outraged physicians over Mioara’s presumption in diagnosing Mr. Lazarescu’s medical problems (and she a mere paramedic). But Mioara perseveres until she wrangles a C.A.T. scan for her patient and a doctor to operate on him—though as Mr. Lazarescu’s head is shaved for brain surgery in the wee hours of the morning, one can easily wish him only a quick and merciful death, since in his growing incoherence and inarticulateness, he has virtually ceased to be a protagonist, and heaven knows what will happen to his beloved cats. Yet, amid all the hospital byplay, there is a trenchant portrait of a people and their society.
Mr. Puiu has described his film as the lethargic antithesis of the fast-paced American television series ER, which is syndicated in Romania. I happen to prefer more recent hospital shows like House and Grey’s Anatomy, but I doubt that they are any closer to the real thing with the penniless Mr. Lazarescus in either Romania or America.
Icons of Revenge
Park Chanwook’s Lady Vengeance, from a screenplay by Jeong Seokyung and Mr. Park, constitutes the final chapter of the Korean filmmaker’s trilogy of revenge films, which includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2004). This time, Mr. Park has made his protagonist a beautiful 32-year-old woman named Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae), who has completed a 13-year sentence for kidnapping and murdering a little boy. As it turns out, she was only marginally involved in the kidnapping, and not at all in the murder. She is determined to avenge herself on the evil grammar-school teacher Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik), who took her in when she was a pregnant teenager and implicated her in his evil schemes of kidnapping and murdering little children.
Much of the story is told in flashbacks, particularly her trumped-up confession to Officer Choi (Nam Il-woo), which lets Mr. Baek off the hook and lulls him into thinking that she has forgiven him—all the better for the success of her elaborate revenge plan. While she’s in prison, she enlists the help of women like her, imprisoned for murdering the men who deceived and exploited them.
When the time arrives for the final accounting, Geum-ja assembles all the parents of the children slain by Mr. Baek and gives them the opportunity to share in the revenge against him.
Throughout the film, Geum-ja must contend as much with her own conflicting emotions as with the task at hand. She is particularly distracted by her need to reconnect with her daughter Jenny, whom she was forced to give up for adoption when she was arrested. At times the film is hard to follow with its frequent mood and time changes, but in the end Geum-ja emerges as a stirring feminist icon and complex, full-bodied, multifaceted woman.