Monday, May 15, 2006

Flight 93

I was surprised how hard I had to look to find anyone who wanted to see this movie. But I finally got three people together Saturday: a guy in my building and two guys I’ve met through the AIDS Marathon. We saw it that night, only two hours after brief introductions in a car and a quick dinner at a chain restaurant.

Flight 93 is not the ideal movie for four people just getting to know each other. But it’s pretty spectacular.

There’s nothing I can say about it that really hasn’t already been said. It’s as brutal and raw and painful as you’d imagine. It’s a grand opera punctuated by small, poignant details: the routine closing of an airplane door, a choked call on a cell phone, the incredulous comments of an air traffic controller as he struggles to stay focused.

The story isn’t new. We all know what happens. In fact, the film assumes its audience is steeped in enough context that it brushes over basic narrative elements—which is fine today but which might make the film harder to grasp in 50 years.

The film is two stories, actually: the air traffic controllers across America desperately trying to comprehend and manage multiple hijackings, and the events aboard Flight 93 itself. Both stories are riveting, though the events on the ground—in the relative safety of the control towers—are certainly easier to digest, if only because you know everyone will survive.

There is a masterful moment halfway through the film where the Flight 93 pilots have been warned about the World Trade Center attacks and told to be alert for potential cockpit intrusions. It’s told in such a way that you find yourself hoping that maybe—just maybe—the pilots won’t open the cockpit door and set in motion catastrophic events that await them.

But that element of hope is a tiny beacon among crashing waves of dread and panic and anguish and devastating sorrow—waves that left me repeatedly with the urge to throw up as I watched. Where my urge to vomit was stronger than what I’d felt when it fully dawned on me exactly what had happened to my friend Miriam in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Than when I watched breast cancer and the effects of chemotherapy almost destroy my mom. Than when my dad and I cleaned up a family friend’s bloody murder scene so her son and grandson wouldn’t have to do it.

Yet I had to see the movie all the way through. Ever since Pan Am 103, I've had this compulsion to understand devastating tragedies on deeper levels than the it-must-be-horrible-to-die-this-way abstract. It’s the same reason I needed to see Titanic. Silly love story aside, the movie shows you exactly what it was like to watch your world literally disappear beneath your feet, to be crushed by tons of iron and steel, to freeze to death among thousands of wet, screaming, terrified people who were powerless to save themselves.

My complaints about Flight 103 are small, and they’re made only in the spirit of hoping for a more powerful tribute to the victims of the attacks. For starters, the hand-held camera technique, while great for imparting feelings of chaos and panic and immediacy, quickly becomes upsetting in an unhelpful way. And Paul Greengrass’ decision to let his actors—especially his amateur actors—ad lib produced a lot of dialogue that’s awkward, forced, inefficient, self-aware and distractingly unrealistic. For instance, in all my years of flying, I have never had a flight attendant greet me at the door of the plane, check my ticket and point me to my seat. Even first-time flyers can tell that all the seats are to the right anyway. Nobody needs to point. Yet the Flight 93 flight attendants repeatedly said things like “Seat 12B—to your right” as the passengers boarded the plane.

In contrast to these distractions, John Powell’s score is masterful, enhancing the story without ever resorting to manipulation. It’s both spare and charismatic, borrowing traditions of chordant dissonance from Pärt, poignancy from Vaughan Williams and the proud resignation that haunts Górecki’s third symphony. It anchors the final moments of the film, providing a sure-footed foundation for the chaos and panic and uncertainty that drive the story to its devastating conclusion.

The popular consensus is that it’s too soon for this movie, but I disagree. I think the timing is perfect. As a nation, we’ve collectively reached the point of emotional fatigue, where we’re squabbling over memorial architecture and the political posturing of legal action. We’ve started losing sight of the enormity of the events of September 11, the human cost, the transcendent level of Greek tragedy that played out in major cities and lonely fields and 24-hour news stations and private living rooms across the continent—the globe, even—that morning.

It takes us back to the human story. The story that really matters. The story we can’t—we should never—forget.

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