I wasn’t even going to see United 93.
Like a lot of people I know, I have been dreading this five-year anniversary of 9/11, and kind of hoping that it would pass by without any patriotic grandstanding or crass commercialism. And when I heard that there were not one, but two September 11 movies coming out, I felt like curling into a ball and sleeping until 2007.
It’s not that I think we shouldn’t remember 9/11. It’s just that the way we choose to remember it is often private and difficult and impossible to encapsulate in a movie. I’m also leery of anything that attempts to capitalize on a tragedy, especially one so fresh, and I’ve watched our illustrious president use and abuse 9/11 as an all-purpose justification too many times. I’m not about to pay nine bucks to be told what to think and feel about the attacks, especially if those thoughts and feelings can be unironically scored with Trey Parker’s “America, Fuck Yeah.”
I am especially worried about Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, scheduled for later this month. Stone has never been a subtle filmmaker, and from everything I’ve heard, his film treats the attacks as the setting for an action thriller. The presence of Nicolas Cage doesn’t do much to quell my fears of exploitation. I’m terrified that Stone’s movie will reduce 9/11 to the level of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, a minor American tragedy in itself.
So here’s Paul Greengrass, maker of The Bourne Supremacy, out of the gate first with a film about the plane that didn’t hit its target, and you can forgive me for expecting patriotic swill. All the elements are there – regular people caught in a dangerous situation, forced to stand up and become real American heroes. I could just hear the swelling strings as the camera closes in on the face of Todd Beamer (perhaps played by Josh Hartnett or Leonardo DiCaprio), his steely gaze fixed on the camera for interminable seconds as he gathers his red, white and blue courage and says, dramatically: “Let’s roll.”
It could have been terrible, in so many different ways.
Which is why it’s so astonishing that United 93 turned out to be perfect.
Start with the fact that as a pure movie, I have not been sucked in and enveloped like this in years. I knew the outcome, but I was still gripped, held in sickening suspense. Greengrass made two artistic decisions early on that set the tone – he shot this like a documentary, with handheld cameras and no dramatic staging, and he designed it in real time, which means you are on board Flight 93 for pretty much the entire 81 minute journey, watching the seconds tick by with increasing dread. In a way, knowing the outcome is worse – you are locked in, marching towards the inevitable, and it’s painful and difficult to watch.
So many times during United 93, Greengrass nimbly steps over potential land mines with sensitivity and an honest artistry. He gives each hijacker the dignity of an individual personality and perspective, something he’s been taken to task for. He dares to portray them not as monsters, but as real, frightened people. He cast no-names to play most of the parts, and got the real air traffic and military commanders to portray themselves in their scenes. He offers no backstories, no cheesy emotional hooks, and in fact very few names.
And he tosses aside Todd Beamer’s famous quote – if you’re not paying attention, you won’t even hear it.
So much of the conversation about United 93 has concerned What It All Means, and what it symbolizes for America, and how to contextualize it into the current political landscape. To his eternal credit, Greengrass is concerned with none of that. He never tells you how to feel about the attacks, or about the events on Flight 93, he simply presents them, in the most real and honest way he can. There is no catharsis here, no national mourning, no “let’s get ‘em” attitude. This film leaves you with a black pit in your stomach, and offers you nothing to soothe it.
It’s amazing. It is far better and more respectful than I thought possible, and at every opportunity it refuses to cheapen the events of September 11, 2001. Americans don’t need a movie to tell them how to feel about 9/11, and most Americans will not need this one to remember it. But if 9/11 movies are inevitable – and they are – then I can only pray that they are all as well crafted as this one.
Would I recommend seeing it? Probably not – you already know whether you want to sit through this or not. It’s not a fun night out at the movies, but it is a stunning work, a great example of how to dramatize an event without exploiting it. The only option better than making United 93 this way would have been not making it at all.
* * * * *
My good friend Chris L’Etoile wrote me a couple of weeks ago with an excellent question, and I’ve been too busy to get back to him. Those who know me know I’m not the best at email communication – I do try, but often my crazy schedule gets the better of me, and I just can’t find the time.
Anyway, Chris’ question, asked mere hours after I posted my Built to Spill review:
“Sometimes you criticize a band for lack of growth or retrenchment – finding a sound and mining it out. Other times you hail continued exploration of or a return to a given sound. What swings an album down one critique or the other? The skill with which they explore the boundaries of a chosen sound? How many other bands are doing something similar? Whether or not you like it?”
I’ve been thinking about this since he asked, and I’m still not 100% sure. There is a certain element of personal taste involved in everything I do – if Ben Folds, for example, decided to make an album of mariachi music instead of his crystalline Beatlesque piano-pop, I would be disappointed, no matter how fantastic his mariachi music turned out to be.
But Chris is right. I am often critical of bands like Franz Ferdinand, who take their one style, press repeat 12 times and call it an album, and I wonder if it’s just that I don’t like their one style. That criticism is borne out by my positive comments on their atypical ballad “Eleanor, Put Your Boots On,” from their latest record. I liked it at least partially because it doesn’t sound like Franz Ferdinand at all.
I guess it comes down to whether I still think there is gold in the mine. I think there’s a difference between exploring a sound to its fullest, and just retreading. The Rolling Stones, in my opinion, have been retreading for more than 30 years, recycling the same blues, rock and soul riffs and lyrical themes, and you only really need one or two Stones albums to get the full picture of what they do.
But take a band like U2, who have basically written the same type of anthemic pop song over and over throughout their career, and are still coming up with new ways to do it. I disliked their attempts to branch out on Zooropa and Pop because they just didn’t capture what this band is best at, and the group proved with their last two albums that they’re still excited about their old-school sound, and that there’s still much to be mined.
But on the flipside, it could be that I simply respond to U2’s sound more – witness my love of the Alarm, and of virtually every British art-pop band that reaches skyward in song. Witness, similarly, my dislike of just about every bluesy rock record I hear – I just don’t think, after more than half a century of this stuff, that there’s much more that can be done with it. It’s a definite bias – the Stones could be, as they believe, the best rock band on the planet, and I’m not sure I would care about them any more than I do now.
Complicating that is the fact that my tastes have changed over the years. Take Pearl Jam as an example. I used to love Pearl Jam. I stood in line with my fellow college students, waiting for midnight so I could purchase Vs., their second album, in 1993. I gave them enormous credit in print for branching out with No Code in 1996, and even for returning to guitar-rock with Yield in 1998. Pearl Jam deftly outlasted the Seattle scene they rode in on, just by being a great rock band, and I loved them for it.
But since then, I just haven’t been able to get excited about their stuff. Binaural, Riot Act and the rarities collection Lost Dogs just slipped by me – they’re there, sitting on a shelf with the rest of my collection, but except for research purposes for this very column, I haven’t listened to them (or any Pearl Jam, really) in half a decade. And I’ve come to realize lately that it’s not Pearl Jam that changed, it’s me. I’m making it sound like I’m breaking up with them, and maybe I am – I have relationships with bands, on a certain level, and sometimes the band and I grow apart.
Pearl Jam’s new self-titled album is, I guess, the best thing they’ve done in a while, and a return to the monolithic rock sound they once traded in. Or so I’ve been told, repeatedly, since the funny blue record with the avocado on the cover came out. And I suppose the critics who are fawning over this are right – this is the leanest, most muscular Pearl Jam album since Yield, and the songs sound mostly full and complete. It is, I suppose, a return to form, and I’m dismayed that I can’t greet it with any more than a yawn.
And it’s partially because, aside from a renewed sense of focus from Vedder and the boys, this record doesn’t sound any different to me than just about everything the band has done. The first five songs all blend together, buoyed by thudding riffs and Vedder’s bellow, which admittedly sounds less bored and detached this time around. Of the opening salvo, only the single “World Wide Suicide” sticks in my head, and if you’ve heard it, you know how typical Pearl Jam it is.
The band takes a couple of detours here and there, most notably on the Grant Lee Phillips-esque “Parachutes,” but mostly sticks with the guitar-driven rock, and that’s what Pearl Jam is best at, no question. On this record, they sound like the same garage band that recorded Riot Act, only someone switched out their decaf with high-test. Pearl Jam is the best, most consistent album they’ve made in ages, and they’ve obviously engaged with this material and put in every effort.
It just bores me silly, that’s all. Near the end, they almost lose me completely with “Come Back,” a rewrite of their hit cover of “Last Kiss” that drags on and on, and even though I know that this is the album’s one truly bad song, I can’t muster any excitement for the other 12, either. “Inside Job” is probably the most successful, closing the album with a moody yet hopeful semi-epic that reminds me of the Pearl Jam I fell in love with.
But that’s not even accurate, either. The whole album sounds like the Pearl Jam I fell in love with, and it’s almost as if the band is making a last-ditch, full-throttle effort to recapture my affection, as if they know I’m on the verge of walking away. And it’s just too little, too late. Pearl Jam hasn’t changed at all – they’re as good now as they’ve ever been – which leaves me to conclude that I have. I would have loved this record when I was 19, but if an album that is quite obviously the best they can do doesn’t thrill me, then it may be time to move on.
I also know that acknowledging my changing tastes doesn’t answer Chris’ question, not completely. The risks and rewards of reinvention is a topic I keep coming back to in this column, and he gives me a new angle to explore – what does lead me to conclude that the well has run dry in one case, but not in another? This will be on my mind for a while, so expect to revisit this theme in the coming weeks. And thanks, Chris, for the challenging query.
Next week is the big one, with a two-hour effort from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the long-awaited return of Paul Simon, and the final album from Grandaddy.
See you in line Tuesday morning.