United 93


uring war time you need enemies, heroes,
and justification—in that order. I was reminded of this triple
imperative as I watched the film

United 93

, which supplies
these ingredients, more or less in this same order. 

United 93

, the first of several major media releases to deal
with the events of September 11, 2001, has been the cause of much
debate, most centered over whether we as a nation are ready to be
re-traumatized. Thus far the debate has not been over whether to,
or why to, but when to mine the day’s events for the big screen.
I would like to present some different questions about the intent
and effect of this movie. 

I had my doubts before the movie even started. My doubts were reinforced
by the movie’s opening scenes—a blank screen with a voiceover
of Koranic verses, followed by an image of the Koran. The effect
was not lost on the theater audience—as hisses leapt through
the audience. They redoubled when the Koran came into view. Here
was the first imperative—enemies. Even before the audience
meets the hijackers, they meet the enemy, Islam. 

Throughout the movie Islam plays the role of demonic authority.
The movie’s audience gets to hear about Allah only after throats
are cut, pilots are stabbed, or the towers are hit. Each of these
acts is either preceded or followed by cries of “Allahu Akbar”
(“God I have submitted myself to you,” or “In the
name of Allah”). 

The movie’s creators went to great lengths to recreate the
events of the day with the greatest accuracy possible. They hired
non-actors (officers at the Northeast Air Defense Sector, air traffic
controllers, etc.) to play themselves and consulted with families
of the deceased. So it is important to note that in the few details
that were left solely to the film’s writers and director—creating
the characters of the hijackers—the movie held true to established
Orientalist themes and simplistic propaganda. How could the movie’s
creators have possibly known that the hijackers prayed with bloody
palms facing skyward or that Allah was credited when a flight attendant
had her throat slit? Why is it that in every instance open to interpretation
this movie plays like a post-Beirut action flick? 

The portrayal of the passengers is also telling. Except for the
hijackers, there is not a dour face on the entire flight—astonishing
to this writer, a native New Yorker, because the early bird from
Newark is not normally associated with bright eyes and pleasant
smiles. To a person, the passengers are portrayed as well-balanced,
emotionally stable, loving, energetic, dare I say, heroic people.
Maybe this can’t be helped (the movie was vetted by relatives
of United 93 victims), but our need to deify the casualties of the
day leads us into our next imperative—the need for heroes,
people we can relate to and whose demise deserves vengeance. 

vengeance fulfills our last war-time imperative—justification.
The events of 9/11 were the first domino in the series that led
to the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq, and now the potential military
aggression toward Iran. With U.S. actions in the Middle East increasingly
under fire internationally and support for the war flagging domestically,
there is a need to be reminded of what it’s all about. And
a need, for propaganda’s sake, to re-cast, or rather reiterate
our casting, as the aggrieved party. 

There was a study done by psychologist Roxanne Cohen Silver on varying
levels of distress associated with the events of September 11. The
conclusion was that “degree of exposure to—not degree
of loss— predicts level of distress.” The single greatest
success of

United 93

is in manufacturing the most vivid exposure
possible to the day’s events. 

Throughout the movie, the camera is hand-held, a huge number of
shots are close ups, and we hear snippets of conversations that
are true to life: tearful goodbyes, dying wishes, and the combination
to a safe where a will could be found. By the end of the movie it
is as if we were there. It should be asked though, do we need this
level of exposure? Does it serve a cathartic purpose? Or a political

Our national need for deified protagonists and demonic aggressors
has been well cared for by Hollywood for a long time now. We thrive
on that sort of binary-logic in which the U.S. is cast as the beset-upon
bulwark of civilization—so I didn’t expect any more. But
I left the theater wondering: if we insist in evoking the dead for
justification, don’t we owe them more than bit parts in a propaganda


Asher is a San Francisco-based writer currently working on a book
about the relationship between the radical left and organized labor.