United 93

With all the rhetoric of a post-9/11 world, it’s surprising how quickly we’ve rushed to capture this moment in the old way, by taking a snapshot of it.
Like a family fresh from a disastrous vacation, we seem to feel we need to make the Twin Towers into a movie of the week before it’s forgotten. Depending on your perspective this is either the final victory of our hyper-real, reality-TV-addicted pop culture or it’s a sweet and poignant gesture.
The fact is that life wasn’t much different after 9/11, and the film based on the events of United 93 (the only plane to be brought down before it hit its intended target – the White House) reminds us that one of the drawbacks of living in a resilient culture is that we tend to forget. Swept into Afghanistan and then Iraq, the last five years is a case study in what happens when you don’t treat an infection.
Maybe this is why United 93 is so powerful. Maybe it’s like draining a festering wound. Or maybe it’s just a damn fine movie.
Director Paul Greengrass has made a film that somehow resists the polarizing politics of our post-9/11 world. United 93 is a film that succeeds as a national mythology and as a historical document, and it does so without resorting to the foam-at-the-mouth antics of the far left or far right.
Greengrass humanizes the terrorists without sympathizing with them, and he has the courage to open with a Muslim prayer. He follows the four young terrorists as they begin the day that will end in mayhem and bloodshed, and shows that they are scared, eager and nervous – human beings like the rest of us. 
We experience the chaos of the outsider perspective firsthand as they enter the airport: the noise, rush and commotion of our busy American lives. Passengers chatter incessantly on cell phones while the quiet somber terrorists mutter prayers under their breath, and the film has the feel of a documentary. 
They board the plane, sitting in different sections and communicating only in whispers. The terrorists’ fellow passengers are a great melting pot of personalities. Greengrass has treated them the same way as he has the terrorists, by letting them speak for themselves. We don’t need fancy flashbacks to know who is married, who has kids, who is leaving elderly parents behind.
We’re smart enough to read these people’s body language, clothes, and gestures, just like we do every day of our lives.
We are in the plane when one of the terrorists stands up and reveals what appears to be a bomb strapped across his chest, are frozen when another slashes a man from behind, and the experience of helplessness is palpable. Libertarians that saw 9/11 as proof of how institutionalized and cowed Americans have become simplify the story by ripping it from its social environment.
United 93 contextualizes the events of that surreal day in September. The film gives us pause to reflect not only on what could have happened if the plane hit its target, but how the events of that day created a chance for passengers on United 93 to take direct, brave action. A takeoff delay and telephone conversations between passengers and loved ones relaying the earlier events in New York provided a timely framework for passengers to disrupt this attack.
“It had to be the right time,” one of the terrorists replies when his cohort asks why he waited so long to begin the takeover. But he miscalculated his actions. The film stuns, humbles, and re-awakens its viewers to our current global climate by relating events that are now nearing five years old. And it leaves viewers hoping that they – like the passengers on United 93 - know when it is time to rise up and take the personal, direct action that is needed.
United 93 is a film communicates this American story on target, and on time.


Mission Impossible III

Mission Impossible III has an impossible mission: To make us forget that Tom Cruise believes powerful space aliens are playing chess with our civilization.
I know that critics may disagree. They might say that Mission Impossible III is supposed to entertain and enthrall us. But I think this misses the larger point. Film is so powerful a medium that it can make us believe in wizards, warriors and, yes, space aliens, but can it make us forget?
Do we go blank looking at Woody Allen’s beady face? Can we see past Charlie Sheen’s apparent love of phone sex? Can loud noises, bright lights and a fast plot make us forget that Cruise is a nut job?
Films can mark actors and directors for life. A Passion of the Christ has the power to blind everyone to the fact that Mel Gibson has mostly starred in and produced intensely superficial and violent films, for example. But can Mission Impossible III save everyone’s favorite frat boy from a career nose dive?
The answer is no. A resounding rhetorical no.
To be fair Cruise has made it hard for a public that just wants to adore him. It would take a big Baptist revival of a film for folks to forget that Cruise believes his wacko religion has done away with the need for psychiatrists. And Mission Impossible III is so limp and forgettable that many will only remember a series of torture scenes.
This is no way to reassure people that you are not crazy, Tom.  I know it’s not your fault, but people expect the Mission Impossible franchise to contain several car chases, a hot PG-13 sex scene, and a bunch of cool GQ-style gizmos. Is this too much too ask, really? Do you think people are demanding too much when they expect so very little?
We don’t want – or need – you to play the middle-age card. I don’t want to get old, Tom, and seeing you get old on screen reminds me that I must not be the superhero I imagine myself to be, either. A bourgeois spy is an oxymoron, and only masochists yearn for another Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
I especially don’t want you to be given a wife just so Philip Seymour Hoffman can repeat, “Do you have a wife? A girlfriend? Whoever she is, I'm gonna find her. I'm gonna hurt her. And then I'm going to kill you right in front of her” over and over again.
(And while we’re at it, I can count to 10, so please – pretty please – stop with the countdowns. It feels suspiciously like some covert Sesame Street lesson.)
Torture is a drag, Tom. I want you to leap tall buildings without messing up your hair. I want to see you scale a building with a wristwatch grappling hook and race high-powered motorcycles, not spit out snot and blood. 
I don’t want you to be chained to a chair like some cheap real-life spy anymore than I want you as a middle aged nobody, picking up sanitary napkins on your way back from work. How do you expect us to forget that you’re crazy if you aren’t acting perfect?
So while we’re watching you NOT be the perfect somebody we want you to be, our minds unconsciously wander back to the fact that not only are you not perfect, but you’re utterly insane. You believe in a mythology that closely resembles bad DC comic books, the sort of trite us Marvel nerds used to laugh at as childish.
You are so unstable that most people took your joke about eating your child’s placenta as fact. 
This isn’t the Tom Cruise I want to believe in. In my movie of your life, the actor playing Tom Cruise is unutterably hip, a James Bond for Generation X. In this movie we are eternally cool, and you are really just a better mirror reflection of ourselves, and folks who believe in space gods have the good sense to be quiet about it.

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