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June 14, 2006

Christopher Peachment asks, as United 93 is a piece of myth-making, why can't we have heroes in the John Wayne or Errol Flynn mould? United 93 - Paul Greengrass

Posted by Christopher Peachment

United 93
Written and Directed by Paul Greengrass
certificate 15, 2006

I don't intend to analyse United 93 at any length or even say very much about it, because even if you have only half-scanned one review of the film, then you will know exactly what to expect. Documentary style, hand-held camera, shot in real time, terrorists given equal prayer-time, no heroes, low key, and half a cast of real people, as opposed to actors.

There is even the man in charge of air traffic control on that fateful day, one Ben Sliney, who is not entirely successful at being himself. Which raises all sorts of existential questions about acting which I don't intend to go into here, either.

In a movie so easily summed up as one big foregone conclusion, there is little left for the reviewer to say, and most of them duly obliged, filling the void with all the usual adjectives. Gut-wrenching, noble and raw being just a few, and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with any of those. However there was one moment which intrigued me.

When all the passengers are rallying after the first shock of confrontation with the terrorists, and are beginning to talk of striking back, there is one small voice of dissent. One man alone, from a half-full aircraft, suggests that the best thing to do would be to go along with the hijackers' requests. The implication is that by staying passive, then they can all come out alive. It is in fact a more sane response than that of the gung-ho passengers. Or it would be, if only it had been made in a world which predated September 11th.

The irony that the suggestion comes about an hour after the world is changed by the World Trade Centre crashes is lost however. The overwhelming feeling that you get when listening to this man is that he is at best weak, at worst a coward.

And why do we get this feeling? It is inescapably because he is the only man among the passengers who is not American. I could not be sure of his accent, but I suspect he was either German or Swedish.

As I just typed that description of the man's accent, I was about to stop and search the internet to see if I could pick up some information from the film's publicity machine as to whether there really was a German man on board and if anything of his stance was known. Whether he rang his family for example, on one of the many phones on board which the passengers are using to report back. But then I did not. Because there is nothing more within the film about him. No information whatsoever, other than the fact that he was, to judge by his voice, a "European", though not English at least, thank God.

I am sure that you can see which way my thinking was going. Unruly gibes about surrender monkeys were rising up unbidden in my mind. But the director Paul Greengrass is no fool. I just wonder what he thought the effect of this one brief episode would be. It looks like a wrong-footing to me.

The other interesting aspect of the reviews was that most critics, referring to Greengrass's track record, side-stepped his previous film and cited Bloody Sunday from 2002 to establish the man's credentials. This is fair enough because Bloody Sunday has much in common with United 93. Hand held camera, speculative docudrama, and so on.

Greengrass's previous film before United 93 was in fact The Bourne Supremacy. And I get the feeling that the reason reviewers didn't mention it was that they were embarrassed that the director had descended into doing a Hollywood spy thriller.

When that film came out, it was referred to as a slickly directed airport blockbuster by a "committed" film director who obviously had to kow-tow to Hollywood imperatives, perhaps to pay his mortgage and alimony bills. This was very wide of the mark.

In fact The Bourne Supremacy was the best American debut by an English director since John Boorman's Point Blank, nearly 40 years ago.

That film was reviewed at the time as a well enough made thriller, when in fact it revivified the genre in America by importing a European sensibility from film makers such as Jean Pierre Mellville. Greengrass does the same to the American spy thriller by using the locations and disenchanted tone of Le Carré.

And where Point Blank consisted of one man's dying thoughts, The Bourne Supremacy is about an amnesiac searching for his own identity. Both films are about men desperately trying to piece together their soul from memories. And both men are doomed to wander forever in limbo like the Flying Dutchman.

Finally, I don't want to be rude about United 93, because it is fine, even noble. As everybody has pointed out, it is honourable, in its downbeat, muted way. So why does it leave me disappointed? Because I have unworthy thoughts while watching it. Deep in my heart I want to see John Wayne stand up from the cowering passengers, mutter "Republic – I like the sound of that word", and stride down the aisle towards the cockpit, followed in close support by an alcoholic Dean Martin and a game-legged old Walter Brennan.

Because this film is a piece of myth-making, no different from Errol Flynn taking Burma or John Wayne standing firm at the Alamo. And if I am going to watch a piece of myth-making, I don't want social realism, and I don't want a foregone conclusion. I want heroes.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.


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