Phil on Film Index

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Review - United 93

So here it is. Almost five years after the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, United 93 is the first big-screen attempt to deal directly with the events of that fateful day. The film’s release has been met with cries of “too soon” by many Americans; but if Hollywood doesn’t deal with 9/11 now, then when? In any case, surely the point is not the timing but the treatment. It certainly would be too soon for a 9/11 movie which deals with its subject in a sensationalistic, exploitative and overly sentimental style, but United 93 doesn’t fit that bill. The director here is Paul Greengrass, a British filmmaker whose work thus far has been characterised by a documentary-style realism and rigorous intelligence; surely he’s the perfect choice for such sensitive material.

United 93 is the story of the one hijacked plane which failed to reach its target on 9/11. After the first two planes had hit the World Trade Centre, and another had crashed into the Pentagon, the passengers on this flight quickly realised that this was no ordinary hijack. They knew they were caught up in a suicide mission and soon decided to take their fate into their own hands. The passengers banded together and attempted to wrestle control of the plane back from the four terrorists. United Airlines flight 93 came down in a field in Pennsylvania; none of the passengers survived, but how many lives had been spared through their actions?

How does one even begin to review a film like this? In truth, it hardly feels like a film at all; this meticulous reconstruction of that extraordinary day feels more like an event, a testament to the bravery of ordinary human beings when faced with certain death. I have my criticisms of the film, but how does a reviewer find flaws in such a project without being seen to besmirch the achievements of the real-life passengers, or to dispute the good intentions of everyone involved in bringing
United 93 to the screen?

First of all, I should point out that
United 93 is a technically brilliant piece of filmmaking. Greengrass utilises the same shaky handheld style he brought to his superb Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy, and crafts every scene with the emphasis on authenticity. The film opens with the hijackers in their hotel room, reciting their prayers, and the early scenes of various people arriving at the airport, checking in, and taking their seats, are as unexceptional and mundane as they must have been on the day itself. Greengrass hasn’t cast any known actors in the film, and as we watch these early passages unfold we scan the unheralded faces, wondering who will later lead the onboard fight for survival.

Ultimately, we never get to know any of these people very well. Greengrass’ technique is to throw us into the middle of the situation, and we only learn what we may have learned if we had been sitting next to the passengers on the plane. Perhaps this is why
United 93 feels so curiously empty. Bloody Sunday was likewise a gritty, realistic examination of a tragic event; but Greengrass had the good sense to place James Nesbitt at the centre of that film, to allow him to be the vessel for our anger, sadness and dismay. United 93 gives us a group of anonymous people, and while the actors are all very impressive in their attempts to depict the rising sense of fear, the film never really exerted the stranglehold atmosphere I had been led to expect.

There are two moments however which really got to me. One occurs late in the film, when the passengers have accepted that they will probably not survive the attempt to take back the plane and are tearfully making phone calls back to their families, telling them that they love them one last time. The raw emotion on display here makes these moments hard to endure; we really start to experience a tangible sense of what’s being lost. The other moment which was hard to take was a little more surprising to me. The sight of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre chilled me to the bone and brought tears to my eyes. I have seen this footage replayed over and over again since 9/11, but seeing it on the big screen, in this context, reminded me of the impact it had when I first saw it live five years ago.

And this brings me to the overriding question I was left with after viewing
United 93 - why has this film been made? As a reconstruction of the onboard events it is certainly commendable, and the bravery of the passengers who took their lives into their own hands deserves to be remembered; but I don’t see what else the film has to offer. None of us have forgotten 9/11, nor are we ever likely to; so what is the purpose of a film which simply takes us step-by-step through events we’re already all too familiar with, if it doesn’t give us some additional insight along the way? United 93 is carefully apolitical. It does depict the breakdown in leadership which stalled the US response to the escalating tragedy, with none of the military personnel able to reach the president and confusion reigning over the best way to tackle the situation; and Greengrass makes the fairly pointless move of having the sole European passenger be the only person who insists on negotiating with the terrorists instead of taking them on. Otherwise, the film never tries to look at the bigger picture of 9/11, and it’s hard to see what other purpose it serves.

While much of what actually took place on board the flight is conjecture, Greengrass is on firmer ground when he deals with the action in the various air traffic control centres and military bases which were monitoring the situation. In many ways, these scenes are the most successful. Greengrass is strong on depicting the dawning realisation of what exactly was going on that day, and we can relate to these people watching in stunned silence as the planes hit the World Trade Centre, because we’ve been there. We know what it’s like to see this kind of horror unfold, to be completely impotent in the face of a devastating attack; and these ground-based scenes were actually much more engaging for me than most of the action in the air. If there’s a hero in
United 93, then it must be FAA Operations Manager Ben Sliney. September 11th 2001 was his first day in the job and when the true scale of the attack was evident he made the call to ground every plane currently in US airspace. Sliney has already lived through this once and here he plays himself brilliantly, becoming the closest thing the film has to a fully-rounded character.

Greengrass builds a fair amount of tension as the time comes for the passengers to act, and the final ten minutes has a frenetic power as the passengers and terrorists fight clumsily for control of the aircraft. The plane plummets to the ground and the camera cuts to black; but as I left the cinema I still couldn’t quite shake the feeling that
United 93 was missing something.

Ultimately what
United 93 is missing is some sort of insight, and perhaps this brings us back to this question of “too soon”. Of course, it’s never too soon to honour brave human beings, but maybe United 93 needed more time to gain a sense of perspective on 9/11, a world-changing event which we are still feeling the consequences from every day. I didn’t learn anything from United 93 which I didn’t know before, and while I have full admiration for everyone involved for being the first to tackle this unenviable storytelling task, I don’t know if their film has the necessary impact to live on in the memory. United 93 is a brave, intelligent and impeccably made film; but it feels somewhat redundant if the only purpose it serves is to remind us about events which are unforgettable.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Review - Poseidon

Some directors find themselves attached to a particular genre, a particular setting, or a particular period in history; Wolfgang Peterson, it seems, just can’t resist the call of the sea. Peterson made his name with probably the greatest of all sea-based films - his 1981 classic Das Boot - and although he has made a number of subsequent films on dry land, he never seemed quite as happy or confident as when he returned to the ocean in 2000 with The Perfect Storm. Now, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, Wolfgang Peterson is making waves again.

Actually, to be exact, Peterson is only making one wave this time, but it’s a pretty big one.
Poseidon is a remake of campy 70’s disaster classic The Poseidon Adventure; in which an enormous ocean liner was capsized by a rogue wave, and a small band of Oscar-winning actors had to make their way through the upside-down vessel to escape via the hull. Peterson’s version sticks to this smart template (with only one Oscar-winner this time) but he carefully cleaves anything extraneous from the screenplay, until we’re left with a pleasingly streamlined summer blockbuster which overcomes a soggy start to deliver wave after wave of action.

Our first sight of the ill-fated ship is breathtaking. Peterson follows lone jogger Dylan (Josh Lucas) as he runs around the deck, and in doing so he offers us a full 360-degree view of this magnificent liner in all its splendour. It’s a surprisingly graceful opening, but Peterson has difficulty displaying the same grace and style when it comes to introducing a few of the supporting characters. There’s former New York mayor Robert Ramsay (Kurt Russell), who is on board with his teenage daughter Jennifer (played by creepy waxwork Emmy Rossum) and is uncomfortable with her burgeoning relationship with boyfriend Christian (Mike Vogel). Elsewhere, Valentin (Freddy RodrĂ­guez) is a cook helping smuggle stowaway Elena (Mia Maestro) on board, and Maggie (Jacinda Barrett) is a single mother who is on board with her son and quickly catches Dylan’s eye.

These characters are introduced to us in a clunky, cheesy and often cringeworthy fashion; and the opening 20 minutes of
Poseidon is almost dead in the water. It’s as if Peterson is desperate to get these introductory niceties out of the way as quickly as possible; the sooner we meet everybody the sooner the director can start drowning them. Fortunately, we don’t have long to wait. Another character on board for this New Year’s Eve voyage is Richard Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), a gay architect who has been jilted by his young lover. Nelson is standing sadly on the deck at midnight, ready to end it all, but just as he’s about to hurl himself overboard he’s interrupted by the small matter of a giant wave heading his way.

This is what we’ve come to see, and
Poseidon doesn’t disappoint. The big moment, when the wave hits, is the very point at which Poseidon suddenly finds its feet. The extraordinary sight of this monstrous wave crashing down upon the ship is brilliantly handled by Peterson; a stunning melding of first-rate special effects and the director’s knack for depicting the destructive force of water. The passengers are tossed helplessly inside the boat as it slowly turns itself over, hundreds of bodies being flung across the screen and meeting their often unpleasant ends. You may balk at the countless anonymous deaths the film so flippantly chalks off during this single sequence; but you’ll probably just be feeling the adrenalin rush it evokes, and thrilling to the sight of Peterson proving exactly why he’s Hollywood’s go-to guy for water-based blockbusters.

Once the chaos caused by the wave’s initial strike has subsided, it’s time for our band of survivors to make their move. Dylan is the ringleader, ignoring the pleas of the captain (Andre Braugher) to stay put and telling anyone who’ll listen that he can find a way out of the ship. All the characters we were introduced to earlier are quick to follow Dylan (even though Josh Lucas surely has one of the
least trustworthy faces in American cinema) and they slowly make their way upwards to the bottom of the ship; getting involved in a series of death-defying situations and trying to keep one step ahead of the slowly rising water level.

The subsequent action is nothing we haven’t seen in this kind of movie before. The characters continually find themselves in tight spots before escaping with seconds to spare, and Mark Protosevich’s screenplay democratically gives everyone an equal share of heroic and cowardly moments. The fate of the characters is mostly rather predictable - particularly in the case of the self-styled “Lucky Larry” (Kevin Dillon), whom most viewers will have tagged as dead meat the moment he appears - but Peterson does have a few surprises up his sleeve as well. An early scene in a lift shaft is given a neat twist, while the unexpected drowning of one character manages to be quite powerful.

Running at almost twenty minutes shorter than the 1973 version,
Poseidon has little room for anything but action, and essentially it’s just one set-piece after another. But Peterson really knows what he’s doing with this material. 25 years ago he tore our nerves to shred by making us feel the awesome power of the ocean enveloping a German submarine, and here he gives us constant reminders of the water pressing on the ship, cracking windows, forcing doors. The action throughout the film is satisfyingly physical, and the best moments are in many ways the least showy. When the characters find themselves trapped in a tight air vent with nowhere to go, their fear feels surprisingly real.

There are undeniably numerous flaws in
Poseidon. The poor characterisation is a major fault, with Lucas and Russell given the bickering Alpha male roles and everyone else feeding off scraps; and the fact that the survivors are all white while a number of black or Hispanic characters die along the way leaves a nasty aftertaste. Performance-wise, Lucas is uncomfortably miscast as the hero and Rossum is as wooden as ever, but Russell and Dreyfuss both give solid displays. The other thing which disappointed me about Poseidon was the fact that Peterson and his production team fail to exploit the visual possibilities of an upturned ocean liner. Instead of making their way through rooms in which everything is upside-down, the cast spend the whole film crawling through various shafts, vents and engine rooms; environments which are grey and indistinguishable whichever way you look at them.

Poseidon is unlikely to replace the original in the hearts of the public, and in all honesty the majority of viewers will probably start to forget it as soon as they leave the cinema; but, in a summer when the blockbusters have failed to really amaze in the desired fashion, the film at least offers a spectacular and entertaining show. You may well quibble about the wooden, cheesy script and one-dimensional characters; but it’s not really worth fighting this kind of stuff. The effects are great, the action is relentless and the film doesn’t outstay its welcome or take itself too seriously. Something exciting always happens when Wolfgang Peterson takes to the sea, and you’ll have plenty of fun if you just go with the flow.