How the media failed ''United 93'': Owen Gleiberman sees a connection between Americans' squeamishness over the important 9/11 film and the press' coverage of it

By Owen Gleiberman
Updated May 19, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: United 93: Jonathan Olley
  • Movie

How the media failed ”United 93”

When the forces of entertainnment media, including Entertainment Weekly, began to focus, to the point of obsession, on the weekly box office returns, it probably didn’t do much to advance the cause of movie artistry in Hollywood, but there’s no denying that there was a certain crude democracy to it all. You can’t quarrel with numbers: They measure, in one clean inarguable stroke, just how popular any given movie is, and so their effect is equalizing — or, at least, it should be.

These days, though, even the numbers, in all their objectivity, are subjected to high spin. A movie’s grosses aren’t always allowed to speak for themselves; the analysis of what those numbers mean is weighed against factors like budget and the always elusive ”expectation.” In a sense, that’s fair — in the real world, budget and expectations matter — but the trouble with the postgame analysis is that it’s too often manipulated by executives, publicists, and cliché conventional wisdom within the media world itself. What happened with United 93 is a good example.

From the outset, the expectations were low. The movie, as everyone knows, is the startling reenactment of a tragedy that remains a wound in the national psyche, and so from the outset media outlets cued themselves to ask: Who, if anyone, was going to want to see that? Since the movie had no stars, and was made for a mere $15 million, it didn’t need to gross much to turn a profit — and, indeed, as its returns now approach a modest $30 million, it seems to have leapt over that bar. In a sense, the movie was a minor triumph: It got terrific reviews (all deserved), generated a modest profit, and proved that even in an America still reeling from the catalycsm of 9/11, a handful of bold moviegoers could find it within themselves to attend a drama as dark and singular and intense as this one.

And yet, and yet… I can’t help but feel that that’s all a bunch of hogwash. It misses what Deep Throat in All the President’s Men called ”the overall” — the truly big picture, in this case the question of what Americans want and expect from their popular art, and what they’ll go to see. For even as I can read the numbers as well as anyone, and can see that they spell (in conventional terms) ”small-scale success,” what every bone in my body tells me is that United 93 is a movie that failed to enter the national bloodstream — and that that’s not so much ”understandable” as it is a damn shame.

I’m not just talking numbers, although it’s worth pointing out that fewer people, thus far, have seen United 93 than have seen the following celebrated masterpieces of the season: the crummy road-trip comedy RV, the crummy horror film Silent Hill, the crummy animated fable The Wild, the crummy Michael Douglas thriller The Sentinel, the crummy Harrison Ford thriller Firewall, the crummy Antonio Banderas teacher fable Take the Lead, the crummy Amanda Bynes teen comedy She’s the Man… You get the picture. (Can you imagine if that comparison were being made to good popcorn films?)

I’m also talking anecdotally. As a critic, I constantly get asked — by friends, strangers, the guy at the dry cleaner — what movies they should go to see, and whenever I have cautiously recommended United 93 to anyone, the reaction has inevitably been this: a wince; a confession that they haven’t seen that movie; that they probably won’t; that they wonder what it was like to sit through; and then they wince again. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I know virtually no one who has seen United 93. So why is that?

Okay, we all know why people haven’t turned out in droves to see United 93. It’s a film that sounds terrifying — and it is. It’s the feel-bad movie of the year. To watch a dramatization of what went on in that plane is to subject oneself to feelings too harrowing to justify.

So let me say something that will sound…unfair. While no one could argue with any of those reasons for avoiding the film, I’m bothered by the way that the squeamishness of today’s moviegoers, even when it comes to reliving a national nightmare, dovetails all too neatly with the way that our media culture is now practically in the business of burying bad news. All that talk of ”lowered expectations” may have been an accurate barometer of United 93‘s ultimate fortunes, but it had the effect of marginalizing the movie before it was even released — making it sound like something that no ”normal” American would ever want to see. In a sense, many of us in the media became enablers, telling our viewers and readers, in essence, ”It’s okay. Movies aren’t supposed to be this painful.”

But aren’t they? I pesonally found the experience of United 93 to be scary, inspiring, and cathartic. I felt closer, in a way that gave me a shudder, to what happened that day; I felt a little more connection to the brave people on that plane, much as I have when I’ve read, in the newspaper, those agonizing transcripts of their final moments. We don’t expect serious journalists to soft-pedal the news. So why do we say that a movie that dares to present itself as an incendiary act of dramatized journalism has touched the forbidden third rail? Why do we insist that it’s too real, too raw, too painful, too soon? I say: It’s not what’s up on screen that we should turn away from. It’s our fear of seeing it.

United 93

  • Movie
  • R
  • 111 minutes
  • Paul Greengrass