9/11 Film: Too Soon? Not Soon Enough?

CBS News Sunday Morning contributor David Edelstein finds the 9/11 film "United 93" difficult and jarring, but ultimately, perhaps, therapeutic.


"Is it too soon?" That's what people are asking about "United 93," the new film about the one hijacked flight on September 11, 2001 that didn't hit its target. The trailer was pulled from several New York theaters after viewers complained. It was too intense, they said. It was too harrowing. It was too soon.

This New Yorker sympathizes -- I found "United 93" as intense and as harrowing as any film I've seen. All the same, it's about as scrupulous, as un-sensationalized as a movie about a monstrous national tragedy can be.

"United 93" is as much journalism as art. It's process-oriented: it's about how things work, and, this day, how things don't. The director, Paul Greengrass, began his career in documentaries, and "Bloody Sunday," his recreation of a 1972 civil rights march in Northern Ireland that ends in a massacre, makes you feel like it's happening live.

In "United 93," it is the morning of September 11; the action unfolds in something close to real time; and we're 10 steps ahead of a tragedy we're unable to change.

If you see "United 93" in a theater with decent sound, you'll notice a constant hubbub in the side speakers. That racket plus the busy-ness on screen creates a weird disconnect. Everything is moving very, very fast and, at the same time, in slow motion.

There are no clear lines of communication between the FAA and the military, which puts the operations manager, Ben Sliney (played by the real Ben Sliney) in an impossible position.

The Northeast Air Defense Sector is helpless.

The military jets don't arrive in Manhattan until the attacks are over.

The president is nowhere to be found.

Which brings us to Flight 93, and it's in this context that the heroism of the passengers truly emerges. We watch them figure out what to do, in the absence of direction, as it's all going down.

No, this isn't exploitation: every close-up of every passenger has weight --as if Greengrass understood that surviving loved ones would be watching. The filmmakers and actors were determined from the outset to win the blessings of the victims' families.

For better or worse, our nation often comes to terms with national traumas when we see them on screen. In the nearly five years since 9/11, the events of that day have permeated our culture, from the portraits of young terrorists in "Syriana" and "Munich," to the torture-first-fill-out-paperwork-later hero in TV's "24."

Yes, depictions of 9/11 still dredge up emotions that are difficult to bear. But we're going to relive that day anyway, in our nightmares. If a movie can help us fill in gaps in our knowledge and pose more incisive questions about what happened and why, then maybe, just maybe, it's not soon enough.
  • Sean Alfano

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