MAY 22, 2006
(Palm)In 1957 Anna Akhmatova wrote a long poem called "Requiem 1935-1940,"
about a particularly grim time under Stalin, when she often visited
a loved one in prison. In a brief prose preface to the poem, she
speaks of one day when she was standing outside the prison in the
visitors' line and a woman recognized her.
She asked me in a
"Can you describe this?"
And I said: "I can."
Then something like a smile passed
fleetingly over what had once
been her face.
This is the absolute essence of a universal and historical hunger.
In any age, in any country, people have wanted art--song or poem or
dance or drama--to deal with tremendous events in their lives.
"Deal with" here means transmuting such an event into some kind of
availability, even though it may at first be too large to
United 93 can be seen as an act in that ancient pattern. This film
deals with the one part of the quadruple attack of September 11,
2001 in which only the people in the plane were killed. All of
us--I can't believe there were any exceptions--were struck with
anguish and awe by the account of the passengers on that flight who
chose to overpower the terrorists and crash the plane rather than
allow it to proceed to its target, the White House or the Capitol.
We measure such an action against whatever it is we know about
ourselves. What would we have done if we had been on that plane?
The best I can say for myself is that I don't really know. But we
all know what some of those passengers did, must have done.
The English writer-director Paul Greengrass knew before he started
that the source materials were scarce. The 9/11 Commission Report
apparently contains all that is so far known about what happened on
the plane; and there are also recordings of telephone calls that
some of the passengers were able to make. What happened in the
various flight control centers is of course a matter of record. (In
those scenes some of the actual people who were involved play
themselves.) But in good measure the sequences on the plane itself
had to be imagined by Greengrass, who apparently utilized what he
was able to learn about those passengers from their relatives and
This limitation in source material has had a peculiar effect on the
script. Never is there a moment of repulsive sentimentality or
exploitation, but neither is Greengrass able to realize an ultimate
purpose. The basic justification for the film had to be
celebration--of the heroism of these passengers. If Greengrass, in
his enforced ignorance, had treated them as gung- ho heroes, it
would have felt facile and disgusting. The film finishes when,
alerted by phone calls about the three crashes in Manhattan and
Washington, some of the passengers rush the terrorists, so we are
left without something that would have been false if it had been
included--an ending. Thus the film doesn't help us to admire those
passengers any more than we did when we read the first news
reports. Unlike innumerable works of art about historical tempests,
United 93 leaves us pretty much where we were before it appeared.
The picture begins with the four terrorists at prayer in their New
York hotel room, hushed and devout. This atmosphere is more than a
contrast with the hustle of Newark Airport, where they are next
seen: it is an implicit statement of the quality of these Muslims'
hatred of our society. Greengrass dramatizes Western hustle
throughout, even when the action is not hectic: he uses Barry
Ackroyd's handheld camera to keep our view of things nervous,
kinetic. (I can't remember a film in which the camera is handheld
more than here.) Three editors-- Clare Douglas, Christopher Rouse,
Richard Pearson--composed a film that is a barrage of short takes
cleverly knitted together.
The cast of passengers and crew serves its purpose--to present
ordinary people going to a fate that is not in their remotest
imaginations. To see the flight captain and co-pilot checking the
plane before takeoff, to watch the varied passengers settling into
their seats, is more agonizing than watching passengers board the
ship in all those Titanic films. With United 93 we see these people
unknowingly stepping into a history that is still in terrible
process. But as a work in (let's call it) the Akhmatova mode, it
does not and could not succeed.
Note: A made-for-television film on the same subject, called Flight
93, is much lesser than Greengrass's work--deplorably compressed
until the end, where it is deplorably distended.
Clean, a French film in French and English, burrows its way through
a social stratum that interests its maker very much and which he
makes moderately interesting to us. Olivier Assayas is the
writer-director, and his interest is in the rock world--not of
fantastic success but of gritty non-success. Emily Wang is almost a
has-been: she has sung in clubs, in London particularly, but has
acquired a heroin habit with her common-law husband, and is
struggling to keep hopeful. She moves from western Canada, where
the picture opens, to London and Paris, working at any kind of job
she can find, kissing friends and former friends in the hope of
getting her rock career back on track.
Assayas puts Emily in a story about her struggle to regain her small
son, who is now with his father's parents; about her husband's
death from an overdose; about her own six-month prison sentence for
possession; and more. But all these maneuvers--faintly
soap-operatic in this strenuously cool film--are essentially about
the shadowy chaotic world just outside the glare of rock success.
Maggie Cheung, who was in Assayas's Irma Vep, plays Emily with a
semi- detached feeling--observing the role as much as portraying
it. The chief pleasure in the picture is Nick Nolte's performance
as the boy's paternal grandfather. Nolte spent his early film years
capitalizing on his size--immense- -and his taciturn yet
commanding personality. Suddenly he burst out of his stereotype. In
Affliction (1997) he played a roughened New Englander, a character
looking for an O'Neill play to be in. (I'll never forget the scene
in which he pulled out his aching tooth with a pair of pliers, then
swirled whiskey in his mouth.) And he has kept on acting, really
acting. In Clean, he is warm, strong, and truthful.