erik lundegaard

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For your consideration: United 93 for best picture

It’s a little silly to talk about best picture candidates from the first eight months of the year, since studios rarely release best picture candidates then. In the last five years, only three of the 20 best picture nominees (“Moulin Rouge!” in 2001, “Seabiscuit” in 2003, and “Crash” in 2005) were released before September. In 2002, no eventual nominee was released until December.

We also don’t know what the rest of the year will bring. Maybe we’ll get five “Citizen Kane”s, necessitating hand-wringing over what to leave off the ballot rather than what to include.

Still, with all that in mind, I recommend “United 93” for best picture consideration. It’s the most powerful movie I’ve seen this year. Unfortunately the very reasons I like it are the very reasons it probably won’t get even a second glance from the Academy.

Most best picture candidates take an event, a series of events, or a life, and pump it up big. They make it grandiose. Important things are being said here. Writer/Director Paul Greengrass takes what will probably be the biggest event of our lives — Sept. 11, 2001 — and reduces it to its essence.

He gives us the events in more-or-less real time, documentary style, and revels in the ordinary. On the plane before take-off, a pretty woman puts on lip balm; another stares dreamily out the window. Passengers do crossword puzzles and engage in airplane conversations. “You going home?” “Yeah. Just here for work.” Flight attendants gossip and talk of family. We recognize it all. “In some cases, the nearest exit may be behind you.” Each ordinary moment deepens rather than dissipates the tension, because viewers know what awaits.

There are no stars to distract us. No Bruce Willis or Nicolas Cage or even a Frank Whaley. The pretty women are not Hollywood pretty. The big men are not Schwarzenegger big. There isn’t even a main character. The closest we have may be Ben Sliney, chief of air-traffic-control operations at the national command center in Herndon, Va., who delivered the order that day to ground all aircraft, and he plays himself (and does it well). Air traffic controllers play themselves, as do NORAD personnel and pilots and flight attendants. It adds to the documentary feel of the movie; it lends authenticity.

The credits of the professional actors are filled with guest shots on gritty, realistic TV shows like “NYPD Blue,” “CSI” and “Law & Order.” They have those kinds of faces. Christian Clemenson, who just won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series (“Boston Legal”), plays Thomas E. Burnett, Jr. We first see him by the gate talking business on his cell phone, an ordinary puffy-faced man. He spends a lot of time in first class on his laptop. In any Hollywood action movie he would be the guy to crack under pressure, but here he remains level-headed. He’s the one who realizes, and says out loud, “This is a suicide mission.” He organizes the others subtly, not grandiosely. His very ordinariness makes his leadership more inspiring than, say, William Wallace’s in “Braveheart” (1995’s best picture) or Maximus’ in “Gladiator” (2000’s best picture).

The passengers’ cobbled-together, whispered plan is inspiring. Everyone pitches in. This guy knows judo, this guy can fly single-engine airplanes, this guy was an air traffic controller for eight years. This is a team effort. If the plane hadn’t been flying so low when they stormed the cockpit, you get the feeling they would’ve survived. They would’ve brought the plane home.

You think: This is America

There are no operatic moments in “United 93,” no grand sweeping statements. Yes, everyone on the ground reacts to the initial hijackings with complacency and an almost amused disbelief. Hijacking? That’s so 1970s. It takes a while for the other shoe to drop. Regarding American 11 out of Boston, which heads toward Manhattan, Ben Sliney says, “Get in touch with New York Center and let them know he’s coming. Let’s get everything out of its way.” Such sad innocence in those words. Minutes later the New York air traffic controller says, “Target 11 just disappeared.” He’s got a thick New York accent. The guy in Boston has a thick Boston accent. They’re both professionals, and their professionalism inspires. They make you proud. You think: This is America. Paul Greengrass is, of course, British.

The complacency on the ground is understandable; we weren’t at war. The bureaucracy is clumsy, as bureaucracies are. But the film’s refusal to place blame or give easy answers forces us to ask our own questions. Are our bureaucracies less clumsy now? When we first enter NORAD, they’re in the middle of classic “last-war” exercises regarding “Russian bears penetrating the AD12 up off Alaska.” Is there a “last war” we’re incorrectly fighting now? An enemy we’re missing? The questions of the movie seep into our present.

Greengrass is bold enough to portray the terrorists on a human scale. The terrorist pilot is less fanatic than the others, more doubtful. The passengers pray, as do the terrorists. The passengers say good-bye to their loved ones, as does one terrorist. This, by the way, excuses nothing. Far from it. The human-sized canvas Greengrass works on makes the heroes more heroic, the villains more unforgivable. What the villains are not is dismissible. What they’re not is “other.” That’s why what they do is so unforgivable. That’s why the film is so powerful.

Chefs know that when you reduce something to its essence you make it more powerful. Paul Greengrass seems to know this, too. Will the Academy?

—Erik Lundegaard wrote about terrorism in Hollywood movies here and the World Trade Center in movies here. (Originally published 9/19/06 on MSNBC.com.)