WARNING: Contains spoilers for both films.
September the 11th 2001. The most significant single political event of the current decade came in the form of the destructive attacks launched on the United States of America that day, killing over three-thousand people, severely damaging the Pentagon and destroying The World Trade Center. Whatever your opinion of the Bush administration or United States foreign policy – the importance of the event can not be denied. Not since the collapse of Soviet Union has the global political landscape changed so much, so swiftly.
A mere five years later and two film makers would set about making the first major motion pictures to focus specifically on the events of that day. Neither film was the first to tackle the subject of September the 11th, but they were the first two major films to interrogate the events themselves. With such a short period of time between the events and the production of these films, sensitivity was a paramount concern. The creative terrain was riddled with landmines – on the one hand some were opposed to the films and claimed it was “too soon” – on the other hand those viewers strongly opposed to the Bush administration and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan felt that the films were propagandistic in nature and copped out of asking the tougher questions surrounding the political context of that day. Both films were released in 2006, the first was in April: Paul Greengrass’ United 93; the second was three months later in August: Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre. Because of the films shared subject matter and the proximity of release dates, the two films will always share an associative connection which is why I’ve chosen to compare them.
The films received mixed reviews upon first release and although for the most part those who are critical of the films are so because of the value of the films themselves, there are those who chastise the films unjustly for their lack of politics, or because of implications the films make. Both Greengrass and Stone have histories in political film making, particularly Stone who has more or less built a career around political films. Greengrass is a British national who had previously directed Bloody Sunday, an account of the 1972 massacre of thirteen civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland by the British military. Most viewers see the film as a balanced account of the events of the day, but many see it as nothing more than anti-British, pro-Irish republican propaganda. Greengrass’ next projects look set to continue his political explorations, with Green Zone and They Marched into Sunlight also set in politically turbulent environments. Stone has made numerous films criticising American military involvement in Vietnam: Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth; as well as presidential biopics about controversial American leaders Richard Nixon and George W. Bush (Nixon and W, respectively). Stone’s reputation as a political film maker was firmer than that of Greengrass’, but the hiring of both film makers for the first major 9/11 films simply added fuel to the fire. Speculation began that their films would be nothing more than anti-republican and or anti-American propaganda, especially Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center given Stone’s propensity for political protest in the form of cinema. Oddly by trying to confound those who’d accuse him of overtly political film making, Stone in avertedly alienated his fan base and shocked most viewers by making one of his least political films to date.
The focus of United 93 is the fourth and final plane to be hijacked, the titular United Airlines - Flight 93. A domestic passenger flight from Newark to San Francisco. Around forty minutes into the flight, Islamic terrorists invaded the cockpit and took over the plane, turned the plane around and headed back to Washington D.C with the intent of crashing the plane into another of the city’s major landmarks. Passengers and Crew learned about the other attacks on the Pentagon and The World Trade Centre and decided to launch an attack on the terrorists and take back the plane. During this attempt the plane crashed killing all forty-four people aboard. Greengrass decided to split his attention between the events on the plane, and events at the air traffic control centres on the ground, leading to Ben Sliney (on his first day as National Operations Manager) taking the unprecedented step of shutting down United States airspace and grounding over four-thousand planes, a significant and brave decision to make.
World Trade Center follows two New York police officers who are trapped by the wreckage of the collapsed Twin Towers. They talk to each other and try to keep each other going, whilst rescue workers search for survivors in the rubble and their family members try to cope with possibility that they may never see their loved ones again.
So despite both films being stories taken from events which took place on September the 11th, there is in fact very little cross over in terms of content. Only scenes which show the World Trade Center on fire from a distance and the air traffic control staff watching the events on the news during United 93 could be classed as cross over. But as World Trade Center opts not to show the impact of the planes on the buildings there is almost no cross over at all. The events they depict are of course connected, and both films investigate themes of survival and confusion. What’s remarkable about the films when examined side by side, is how fundamentally different they are in approach, style, story, energy and quality.
Greengrass takes a naturalistic and realistic approach to his drama, using all the information at his disposal about the sequence of events onboard Flight 93 to re-create those terrifying two hours as authentically as possible. As everyone aboard the plane ultimately perished, there is a limited amount of information available – but Greengrass uses what little there is to the fullest. The passengers began using plane phones to contact their loved ones (which is how they found out about the events unfolding in New York and Washington.) A lot of information was gathered from the family members of the victims, information about those fatal final minutes, and information about the victims themselves – what clothes they wore, what they were like as people, what they were likely to do. Of course a minute-by-minute account is not possible so Greengrass instead decided to speculate using character based improvisation: understanding the people allows you to understand the action, but ultimately the majority of the film is still pure speculation. But within this speculation Greengrass is allowed to shine as a film maker, not opting for cheesy dialogue or traditionally “dramatic” moments; instead his concentration is on reality (however imagined that reality maybe). This denies the film any of the typical disaster movie clichés and instead forms an unbearable emotional freefall. United 93 is a film which in lesser hands could have been easily ruined by more traditional directorial approaches or patriotic grandstanding. Crucially, United 93 does not dehumanise the hijackers, in fact the leader of the hijackers is shown to have second thoughts about the entire endeavor (this is of course based on how long it took for the initial hijack to occur, which was much later than the first three planes - Greengrass speculates that the lead hijackers subordinate took the initiative because of his hesitation, he bases this hesitation on what we know about the lead Hijacker Ziad Jarrah. He came from a wealthy and secular family, he was university educated and was one of the only hijackers of that day to have maintained close connections to his family. Greengrass portrays Jarrah as man in over his head; who doubts what he’s doing, and lacks the conviction to go through with the action). United 93 doesn’t conform to the American patriotic rhetoric which presumes that the passengers launched an attack on the hijackers to deliberately crash the plane and thwart the terrorists’ plans. Instead Greengrass portrays the attack as bid for survival – there were at least two passengers on the plane who could have taken control and safely landed the plane – this was not a suicide run on the part of the passengers – they were trying to save their own lives not the lives of people in the terrorist’s target. The notion that the first victory for America in the war on terror came in the form the Flight 93 crash is not conformed to by Greengrass and the evidence is compelling. “Let’s Roll” were the last words uttered by one passenger before the attack commenced, the words since the events had been adopted as a patriotic slogan for the war on terror. Many critics have noted that Greengrass doesn’t remove those words but instead incorporates them into a larger sentence and uses them matter of factly rather than as dramatic crescendo. It is this sort of direction which confirms Greengrass as one of the greatest directors working on Hollywood productions today. Using “Let’s Roll” as a dramatic crescendo would have been a cheap trick which only a hackneyed director would resort to.
Oliver Stone by comparison has far more information; his protagonists survived their ordeal and thus were available as technical consultants on the film, able to give all the information they could about their experiences, from thoughts and feelings to the words they exchanged whilst trapped underground. Stone was able to take all of it onboard to make their story come to life on film. Even key supporting players are all based on real people and use a vast amount of recorded information to make the film as historically accurate as possible. Even Michael Shannon’s character, that of US Army Staff Sergeant Dave Karnes is based a real man (initially test audiences believed he was a cinematic fabrication because of the characters unnatural nature – he never seems to blink.) Both films are based on historical facts and all of the characters of both films are based on real people, but unlike Greengrass, Stone can not resist dramatic proclamations and most of them come from the aforementioned Dave Karnes who upon seeing the ground zero site states: “It's like God made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what we're not yet ready to see”, later Karnes decides to re-enlist in the army, he indignantly states: “someone has to avenge what happened here”. The fact that Stone allocated such a line of dialogue to a character who discovered the trapped police men is perhaps the films biggest crime. Dave Karnes is painted as a positive (if socially inadequate character) a hero of 9/11, but come the end of the film his concerns are no longer about saving lives, but with taking them, and as a hero of 9/11 this line condones the blood shed that follows, so despite trying to remain neutral, Stone actually seems to be making a pro-war-on-terror statement with the character of Karnes. Surprisingly from a film maker who built a career by condemning war in his films, here Stone is seen by implication as condoning it.
United 93’s score also helps demonstrate Greengrass’ restraint. Although John Powell’s score is always present, it is however far from overtly manipulative or melancholy. Instead choosing a throbbing rhythm, low in volume within the films final audio mix, adding to the tension rather than dictating the tension. United 93 does not rely on the score to create emotional connections with the content; the score amplifies the emotional context but never over rides it. World Trade Centre by contrast has one of the most emotionally manipulative and melancholy scores of any recent films, the continued use of somber, saddening piano and string based music is at best irritating and at worst - counter productive. By trying to elbow lock more emotion into an already emotionally heightened scenario, Stone and composer Craig Armstrong destroy emotional connections and character empathy.
This division of style extends to camera work, performance styles, casting, and sense of reality. The camera work in United 93 is entirely hand held adding to the sense of reality, the film is restricted to first person perspectives, there is no so-called “God-perspective”. This is demonstrated most successfully by Greengrass’ refusal to cut to the outside of the plane once it’s in the air. Whose perspective is it? There’s no one outside the plane so Greengrass can not cut to outside the plane. United 93’s hand held camera work and continued first person perspective drags the viewer into the film and refuses to let go, there are no movie “tricks”, no grandeur, no heightened dramatics, nothing to break the films ability to convince the audience that they are watching reality unfold. Stone’s World Trade Centre takes a far more stylised and grandiose approach to the content, shooting with steady tracking, dolly or crane shots. Stylish, unnatural camera work is constant, two key examples: when the police officers head out on their shift they close their locker doors and all pause to look directly into camera – breaking the fourth wall. Later after the towers have collapsed the camera rises from the rubble and continues upwards until the eventually the entire American continent is visible from space. Such imagery is at odds with Stones quest for factual reality, he spends so much time perusing the facts of the day but then presents them in an overly stylised fashion – breaking that reality. This is especially difficult with a 9/11 film as there is so much news and amateur footage of the events of that day that any stylised cinematic techniques seem very much at odds with the reality that the vast majority of us are familiar with because of the comprehensive footage available of the facts of that day. Were he to employ this sort of photography and factual accuracy to a film which covers events that predate the 24 hour new cycle, events which most of the audiences might not have witnessed first hand on the news of that day - then such a combination is more acceptable.
The performance style and casting in the two films are also very different, Stone choose to cast bigger name actors like Nicholas Cage, Maria Bello, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Well known faces with star persona’s to help sell the film upon release, again this speaks of dramatising rather than re-enacting. Not that there is anything wrong with casting well known actors but it does break somewhat with reality. Another casting error Stone makes is within his supporting players, many of whom were inexperienced and it shows. The families of the protagonists (Bello and Gyllenhaal excepted) are performed with all the armature quality of a middle school theatre production. It takes a particular type of director to handle non-professional actors – Stone is not one of these directors.
Greengrass opted to cast entirely unknown actors who would be less recognisable from their previous works, again moving towards a creation and immersion within reality, the dialogue and line deliveries are all naturalistic, talking over each other, slurring words which are inaudible at times because of the panic. Greengrass doesn’t focus on a set of passengers in particular – although some are more prominent than others – he uses quick snapshots of different characters talking to give a sense of more going on at any given time than just two characters talking. Greengrass successfully conveys that there are over forty people on the plane, over forty human beings rather than five or six main characters and thirty-odd extras. Greengrass takes a big risk with United 93 and often casts non-professional actors as well, most notably Ben Sliney in particular is the closest the film has to a main character and he is played by himself. Other performers like members of the cabin crew are played by real life cabin crew members and employees of United Airlines. This could have been a disastrous move on Greengrass’ part, but being as superior director to Oliver Stone he manages to use his non-professional actors effectively with almost no false notes of self conscious deliveries throughout the film.
The perspective of United 93 never changes, it is always with the characters and it is always from the point of view of a human being. The chronology is linear, the reality is never broken. World Trade Center however often breaks from reality, featuring flash backs of the protagonists with their loved ones (which contain some of the films most cringe worthy, clichéd, and underwritten dialogue) and also features fantasy sequences as a police officer starts seeing visions of his wife reassuring him that everything will turn out okay, and the other officer imagines Jesus approaching him. A ham-fisted dramatic device, the appearance of Jesus may well have been an attempt from Stone to create depth where there is none. Instead it exposes the lack of subtlety in Stone’s formalist creative arsenal.
There are thousands of stories which could be told from September the 11th and that’s discounting fictional stories which could be created around the events should a film maker so desire. Thus we come to the final fatal distinction between United 93 and World Trade Center. The stories Stone and Greengrass decided to pursue would divide the quality of their works more than any other factor. The story of United 93 is instantly cinematic material, despite the absence of a central protagonist, the passengers attempting to take the plane back from the hijackers is a story loaded with drama and we are with all of the passengers - not just two or three. Both the events on the plane and the events in the air traffic control centres are presented with an incredible level of kinetic energy, and loaded with pathos. Greengrass ran continuous takes of the final twenty minutes of the film, helping to build up the energy within the cast for the blistering final act. But ultimately it is the structure of the film which holds our interest more than the style. The film strictly adheres to a three act structure and a series of dramatic escalations and events. The inciting incident being the revelation that other planes have been hijacked, the midpoint being the attack on the World Trade Centre and the hijacking of United 93, the end of the second act comes with Bill Sliney’s decision to freeze all American airspace and ground all flights in, out, within or over the top of the United States. The third act is the passengers failed attempt to take the plane from the hijackers. The majority of viewers know how this story ends; it is the climax of the story and the most significant event for the men and women on the flight. Greengrass decided to leave the moment of impact until literally the final frames of the film. It is a testament to Greengrass’ ability to tap into raw and unfiltered emotion that he manages to keep his film engaging for all of it’s 111 minutes despite the outcome of the story being common knowledge – the audience forgoes their own knowledge, forgets the pre-existing outcome and is overcome by pure tension as five grown men struggle to rip through the cockpit door with their bare hands – for a moment you actually believe they’re going to succeed, for a moment you forget how history panned out and are at one with the passengers of Flight 93 in their desperate struggle to survive.
But desperation is absent from Oliver Stones plodding, pompous, pedestrian, World Trade Center. The story of port authority Police Officers John McLoughlin and William J. Jimeno is frankly a bit dull (after the first twenty minutes). Of course the experience for McLoughlin and Jimeno was far from dull and they’re two of a handful of people who survived the collapse of the twin towers, they were also two of the last men to be rescued from the rubble. Theirs is a story of hope, a positive story of survival against all odds on a day of so much death and so much destruction as the films tagline surmises: “The World Saw Evil That Day. Two Men Saw Something Else”. At least the films marketing department resisted using the word “hope” and opted for “Something Else”, making the films tagline only marginally subtler than the rest of the film. As horrendous as the experience was for McLoughlin and Jimeno and as miraculous as their eventual rescue was, the experience for the audience is passive, static, and devoid of energy. The twin towers collapse after the first twenty minutes of the film, the event itself is captured from inside one of the towers with the aid of gratuitous slow motion and less than perfect computer generated imagery. But even before the collapse of the towers, events seem to take forever to unravel. The opening sequence of the film is not without a sense of dread, but it is without a sense of drama. Only the sound of the tower buckling under its own weight above unsuspecting police officers and one officer stating that Iserail has been nuked capture a sense of the chaos and the unknown which was so potent on September the 11th. After the collapse McLoughlin and Jimeno are trapped, barely able to move for the remainder of the films 90 minutes and as such they make for less than inspired protagonists, unless Stone can switch perspectives from the men to a more active story occasionally. He does this, but unfortunately his choice of secondary perspectives is that of the families of the victims and the two or three rescuers who still persevere, searching for survivors and eventually rescue McLoughlin and Jimeno. Unfortunately neither of these offer much in the way of an engaging drama, the victims families are as trapped and powerless as their loved ones, they lack any real information, and they are not in a position to help, and thus their scenes are limited for the most part to being upset but with nothing to do. As for the rescuers they carefully tread the wreckage of Ground Zero and flash torches into darkened holes until eventually they find the trapped men and begin the less than exciting rescue. The second and third acts of World Trade Center lack both energy and drive; the story maybe historically accurate, but outside of McLoughlin, Jimeno, and their families subjective perspectives there is little for an audience of strangers to engage with – in part due to poor characterisation and a weak screenplay, but also due to the nature of the story itself. The protagonists have little to do but lie still, and pass the time with a combination of clichéd dialogue and blunt character exposition, the families have little to do but sit around and pass the time with a combination of clichéd dialogue and blunt character exposition, the rescuers have little to do be search around and pass the time with a combination of clichéd dialogue and blunt character exposition (if we’re lucky).
Ultimately, Paul Greengrass made a 9/11 movie which deliberately subverted expectations – the film is an exercise in extreme naturalism – it is devoid of political agendas and does not take sides. It does speculate, but it never manipulates. It is not a patriotic film; there are barely two American flags present in the film for its entire runtime. United 93 is not about America, it is about the passengers, the hijackers and the air traffic controllers. It is a dramatic reconstruction of one event. Paul Greengrass didn’t just make a 9/11 film, he didn’t just make the first 9/11 film, he made the 9/11 film. Any writer or director who attempts to make another film about the events of September the 11th has their work cut out for them because Greengrass has set a very high watermark for all films to come. United 93’s release just a few months before the release of World Trade Center helped through comparison to expose what a hollow shell Oliver Stone’s films is. Stone’s is a cinematic vacuity; a more traditional feature film and as a result the entire effort is immaterial when compared with cinematic innovations of United 93.