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Moriarty Reacts To UNITED 93!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

I’ll be honest... I’m not interested in changing anyone’s mind on this one. If you’re sure you can’t sit through it, then don’t. Don’t force yourself. If you get a knot in your stomach every time you see the trailer or a commercial for it, and you find yourself getting anxious at the thought of seeing 100 minutes of this in a theater... then don’t go.

What Paul Greengrass has done with this film is fairly exceptional, and it’s harder than it looks. He has completely avoided all of the traps that would typically hobble a film like this, and he’s done it in a way where his technique as a filmmaker is almost invisible. If you’re expecting something that ladles on the sentiment or that plays by the conventional rules of Hollywood storytelling, you won’t find it here. Even if you’re a fan of BLOODY SUNDAY, an earlier film that Greengrass made that dramatized a real-life tragic incident, I still don’t think you have any idea what he’s up to with this movie. I certainly didn’t.

I managed to make it to the theater last night without ever having seen a frame of the film. I didn’t see a trailer. I didn’t see any commercials. I hadn’t even seen a still from the film. It wasn’t like I was going out of my way to avoid all imagery from it, either. I simply happened to miss seeing anything until the lights went down and the film began, and in a way, I can’t imagine how you’d sell this. There are no movie stars. There are no “action scenes.” There are no elements that you would typically use to sell a movie to the general public, and you can’t simply cash in on tragedy, either.

But forget about how to sell the film. The deeper question... the more important question... is about whether or not the film has anything to say. Is it just a dramatic recreation of the events of that morning? Or does the film have some larger underpinning, something driving the narrative? In short, is this a case of a movie that exists simply for a message, or is there some genuine meat to it?

Personally, I don’t think it’s a message film at all. I don’t think this is a political film, and I think anyone who’s spent the last week getting worked up in our talkbacks over which agenda they think the film will satisfy is both wrong and right. Wrong because I don’t think the film has any one agenda on its mind, but right because I think you can project anything you want onto it, just as people have been projecting their agendas onto the real events ever since 9/11 happened. One of the ways you advance whatever your agenda is in a film like this is picking which details you include, and which you don’t. When you dramatize things, how you dramatize is inevitably going to reveal what your intent is.

But not Greengrass. His approach is really particular, very smart. As the film begins, he cuts from location to location, never telling us where we are with exposition, never explaining why anyone’s flying, not giving them long conversations about their backgrounds. There are no scenes in the conventional sense. It’s almost disconcerting. You see an airport terminal, people waiting there, and the way it’s shot, the way it’s cast... it’s like you’re looking at the extras from a film, and you can’t help but look around for the movie star, for the familiar face. Whatever dialogue you hear, it’s mixed almost as background noise, as part of the ambient sound. When we see the inside of the national command center for the FAA, and we see Ben Sliney as the Operations Manager, it doesn’t feel like we’re seeing something being set up for a movie. There’s no “moment” for Sliney. Instead, it’s just a guy doing his job, moving through his morning, and by using the real Ben Sliney to play himself, Greengrass guaranteed that he doesn’t look like a Hollywood actor. He looks like a real guy, a normal guy, and he’s totally natural about what he’s doing.

These small details start to aggregate, pile up. Because we’re seeing Arabs in hotel rooms from the very start, praying in their native tongue, we’re set on edge right away. Right away, we know who we’re looking at, and we know what they’re going to do. The question is when and how, and are we going to be able to watch when it does finally happen? It’s a question you might not know the answer to until the rough stuff kicks in. I saw people walk out of our screening and not come back.

Greengrass wisely focuses the first half of the film on NORAD and the FAA and the individual air traffic control centers, where we see guys gathered around screens, trying to sort out what’s going on. Planes drop out of communication first, then disappear from radar completely. The film was photographed by Barry Ackroyd, who’s got a long history of working in documentaries and also with Ken Loach, a very naturalistic filmmaker in his own right. Shooting this film on HD instead of film has allowed him and Greengrass to create their own style, working in long takes, but not in a gimmicky way. This just allows his actors to go beyond theater, to inhabit their characters completely. The film’s dialogue was almost entirely improvised, but all the actors were given any pertinent recordings or transcripts if available, and at the moments where it’s possible, the film is exact, precise.

By the time the film finally shifts gears and becomes entirely focused on what’s happening aboard Flight 93, an almost unbearable level of tension sets in, and I’d bet there will be no more demanding half-hour of film this year. Again... there is very little in the way of conventional drama. No big speeches back and forth. Even the oft-quoted “Let’s roll” gets thrown away in the middle of another line. I have a few small complaints about things that pull me out of the reality, like the casting of SLEDGE HAMMER’s David Rasche as a former pilot who is one of the passengers. He’s too well-known, too familiar. And there’s a touch I like, but that I question, in the final moments before the passengers stand up and fight back. They know they’re going to to do it. And by this point, the terrorists know that the passengers are planning something. And everyone’s retreated to their neutral corners to get ready. In those tense moments, people pray to Allah at one end of the plane while other people recite “The Lord’s Prayer” at the other. And for that moment, it’s a Holy War in miniature, and while I’m sure most of the people on the plane were praying, that bit of intercutting makes a stronger editorial statement than anything else in the film, and it’s the closest Greengrass comes to tipping his hand too far. But then when you see how he handles the very end of the movie, he reasserts his complete command, and he nails it. He handles it just right, and he manages to make a powerfully emotional film that is never sentimental, something I would have thought impossible.

So as I said at the start of this review... I’m not trying to convince you to see it if you weren’t going to. And I’m not reacting to it as an “important” film. I’m just reacting to it as a film, and as filmmaking, and on that level, I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s the sort of thing we’ll be looking back at years from now, and I think Greengrass deserves to be set free on anything he wants next. He’s earned it.

I’ve got pieces on MONSTER HOUSE and BEERFEST due later in the weekend, so I’ve got to get busy. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

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