I had talked about a story a long time ago on this blog.
What totally confounded me was an item a TV channel ran after 9/11. One of the unfortunate people who had been trapped inside the Twin Towers sent a voice message (which his family later got) on their answering machine in which he basically says goodbye to them.
I was intensely moved by the storyâ€”â€”â€“but I also wondered why did the family give the TV channel these tapes? Weren’t the last words of a father and a husband something private meant for his wife and daughter ONLY? Why were his wife and daughter on TV allowing themselves to be subject to the questions of an intrusive reporter who kept on asking them how they felt knowing that Mr so-and-so would never come back? I understand the reporter was looking to increase the channelâ€™s TRPs by playing on the grief of this bereavement but why was the family letting their genuine grief be made a public spectacle of ?
Sharing relieves grief. Accepted. But does it really help to do it in this very public, voyeuristic fashion?
I had similar misgivings when I went to see “United 93”, a movie about the last few hours of United 93, one of the ill-fated four flights that got hijacked on September 11, 2001.
Was this going to be another commercial venture seeking to make a quick buck by peddling human misery?
After seeing it, my answer is a resounding “No”—- indeed United 93 is one of the most powerful movies to have come out of Hollywood in recent times.
And yet, it could so easily have degenerated into blatant exploitation had it not been for an extraordinary effort from the director, Paul Greengrass.
So how does Greengrass manage to elevate United 93 above maudlin sentimentality and predictable feelings of outrage?
By consciously avoiding all kinds of cinematic clichÃ©s.
There are no back stories of the passengers of U93. No flashbacks. No rousing John Williams score. No choreographed tears. No “dialogue-baazi”. No witty comebacks. No wry humour. No stock characters. No lionizing. No villification.
So while the passengers are shown, albeit briefly, making tearful calls to their beloved ones —-that itself never becomes the focus of the narrative. If it had been, then indeed United 93 would have become a commodizing of private grief—the depiction of personal tragedy that the world has no business of “ooh-aahing” over.
Because of this, Todd Beamer’s call to a Verizon operator and their tearful reciting of prayers together is not there. Nor is the action allowed to get out out of the confines of the plane (a temptation must have been there to show the reaction of the people on the other end of the line)—-the only exception is when the spotlight shifts over to the airtraffic controllers who serve to provide the “context” of the tragedy abroad United 93.
Greengrass’s focus instead is the mindnumbing terror inside that claustrophobic death chamber as it careens at breakneck velocity at low altitude— the tossing and turning of the plane, the blood splattered walls, the sobbing and the hushed whispering of the passengers, the red-bandanaed, panicking terrorists shorn off all humanity and at the same time intensely human.
But the fear in itself is not the principal point of focus—had it been so then the movie would also have been exploitative—not of grief but of terror.
Which it is not.
The reason terror is emphasized is only because it provides the backdrop for the real theme of the movie: the indomitable human spirit to “fight” till the end. On one hand, a rag-tag group of terrorized passengers making a desperate lunge at the terrorists armed with plastic knives, the weight of their own bodies and the refreshment cart and knocking down the cockpit door. On the other hand, a religion-crazed lunatic locking his arms around the steering as a group of burly passengers try to pry him loose—-determined to die and to take as many with him as he can even when he realizes that his mission has failed.
What however leaves a wallop in the stomach is the stunning, almost abrupt ending—-the director finishing the movie right at the moment when its impact is the greatest.
And stepping back.
And challenging the audience to think. And reflect.
How many movies now-a-days allow you to do that?