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April 29, 2006

United 93: Mars and Venus


All entries on United 93 here.

Last week I posted some examples of the wildly varying reactions to United 93. I had predicted that the fault line would be one's understanding of the terrorist threat: People who believe we need to counter this threat aggressively, with war if necessary, are using the film to strengthen their resolve. Those who think war is a wrongheaded response understand the role the film plays for "warmongers," and want to undermine its power by finding fault with its fidelity to facts and its treatment of heroism.

One could call these the Mars and Venus approaches to United 93.

Ron Rosenbaum and Lee Siegal take the Venus approach. This is not to disparage all you girly-girls out there. Venus brings valuable insights to the table. But Venus thinks courage and heroism and stoicism and fighting are dumb, and mess up her makeup too. Venus thinks the story arc is too simplistic, too linear. Typical boy stuff.

Redemptive uplift: It's the official religion of the media, anyway. There must be a silver lining; it's always darkest before the dawn; the human spirit will triumph over evil; there must be a pony.

That's always been the subtextual spiritual narrative of media catastrophe coverage: terrible human tragedy, but something good always can be found in it to affirm faith and hope and make us feel better. Plucky, ordinary human beings find a way to rise above the disaster. Man must prevail. The human spirit is resilient, unconquerable. Did I mention there must be a pony?

9/11 is no different. Flight 93 has become 9/11's pony.

Boys like explosions and car chases. Girls like complicated movies about relationships, which proves they are sophisticated. And if you actually get off on all this heroism stuff, then you are just a dumb jock.

Yes, it appears from the cockpit recordings recently released that something noble — a passenger uprising that disrupted the hijackers' plans — happened on that flight. But is it possible to separate it out from the other events of the day? In three out of four cases savage mass murderers prevailed. A "war on terror" has ensued; a war in Iraq followed. In neither case is it clear that the outcome is going to be favorable. The story of 9/11 as a whole increasingly seems a portent that Flight 93 was an aberration, and that those intent on suicidal martyrdom may well prevail over those who value human life over holy books. This possibility is something no one likes to dwell on, and in that sense the "triumphant" fable of Flight 93, genuinely heroic as it is, represents a comforting diversion. There must be a pony.

Of course it's not clear that the outcome is going to be favorable. Of course we dwell on the possibility of failure. A 5 minute tour of the warblogs will make it clear that we obsess over the possibility of failure. Examples of genuine heroism are precious and needed because failure is very possible and the outcome will be influenced by how we handle this. But that's the kind of thing soldiers and police and firefighters and EMTs and other Mars types understand.

I do think Rosenbaum knows this, and he just does not want to be put in the position of having to choose whether to rise to the occasion. If he can invalidate the idea of rising to the occasion, if he can do an end run around the conflict and pronounce that we are all doomed anyway, he can avoid not only being tested, but the possibility of being tested. If enough of us believe him, then we will all join him in avoiding this challenge and he won't be shown up.

Lee Siegal expresses a similar discomfort with the challenge the film presents:

I believe that they tried to wrest back control of the plane because they were trying to save themselves, not because they intended to sacrifice their lives to save the lives of people in Washington. That doesn't make them selfish. That doesn't diminish their bravery. That makes them attached to life. It is obscene to remember them only on the condition that they acted in a way that flatters our imaginations. We live in a society in which self-interest and selfishness so often go hand in hand that when we encounter a healthy and profound instance of the former, we want to cover it up under a lie about human nature, perhaps out of guilt over our own relentless selfishness.

Sorry, I think this is a straw man. As one of the commenters points out, it was unlikely that they could actually wrest the plane from the jihadis and safely pilot it down, and they knew that. But they also knew - because of the miracle of in-flight passenger telecommunications - that the jihadis were planning to crash the plane into something and that they were headed back to the East Coast. In the heat of conflict they did not parse out all these facts and neatly assigned different motives to each one. They were heroic. They were self-interested. The two are not in conflict. (And a soldier who saves his fellows by throwing himself on a grenade is also acting out of self-interest, once removed. Something else that Mars types understand.)

Lee wants to separate things that in real life are intertwined. Why? If he can make a case that the heroism is "selfish," he thinks that lessens it. In fact, he - like Ron Rosenbaum - is so uncomfortable with the heroism that he wants to see

a different kind of movie about Flight 93. I would like to see a movie showing a passenger--of whatever gender, race or age--sitting in his seat in anguish and terror, at times weeping for his precious life, sitting in anger and terror over the possibility of never seeing the people he loves again, of not living beyond that moment. That would be the film. It should be as long as Flight 93 lasted. It would not lend itself to heavy lucubrations about heroism or cowardice, or to 9/11 metaphors, or to big symbolic meanings encompassing the rise and fall of civilizations and Conclusions To Be Drawn From The Menace We Face. It would be about fragile, inestimable life, about the bare truth of that, which is beyond any meaning we impose on it. As a society, we need to remember that life is nakedly, ineffably precious before it takes the form of any of the other things it inevitably has to be.

Can you do that, my scrivening peers? Can you live without the shelter of adventure-stories and fairy tales you listened to as children? Or have you learned nothing from experience?

Well, what have I learned from experience? I have learned, from the passengers of Flight 93, from soldiers, firefighters, women fighting rapists in the street, slaves escaping their servitude, children standing up to bullies, outnumbered and outgunned partisans making a last stand, and from many other sources, is that human beings often have it in them to become larger than their fears or selfishness. What I learn from those examples - which recognition is part of my experience of human interaction - is that to whatever extent I meditate on those examples, I explore whether I too might be capable of such things.

I would feel empathy for the passenger sitting weeping in his seat, and that might also be me. I wouldn't avoid facing that person for fear of taking on his paralysis. But I would like to think that I wouldn't join him, in fact, I would like to think that I could motivate him to get up and join me in taking action.

What strikes me about both Rosenbaum and Siegal is that they not only want to sit in their seats and weep, they want to denigrate any desire by anyone else to get up out of our seats and do something. They are like the two Jews in a cattle car to Auschwitz, one of whom suggests making a break for it when the cattle car stops at a crossing. The other says "Shush, you might make things worse."

This is not to say that anyone who questions the rightness of meeting terrorism with violence is a coward. A case can be made that other approaches are preferable. I don't agree with that point of view, but one could make a case. What I am saying is that if you so begrudge a re-enactment of a genuine act of heroism (whether or not the passengers actually breached the cockpit), I have to wonder what your motives are, especially when you doth protest too much. You can give the passengers of Flight 93 their due, and still be against the Iraq War. These responses are about something else, something more personal.

And for comparison, here's a seriously Mars review of the film.

And this one, which specifically (although probably unknowingly) answers Rosenbaum and Siegal:

Ambivalence seems to be a painfully inadequate, mewling response to the courage of United 93's passengers who, according to Hemingway's definition of the term, acted not in fearlessness but despite their fear. This is a film that demands a different vocabulary, one that conveys both misgivings about our need for these fetishistic cinematic rituals, and admiration for the discipline and dignity with which an artist has brought the incomprehensible into lucid and uncompromising focus.

"United 93" is a great movie, and I hated every minute of it.

Judith | 04/29/06 at 04:21 AM | Categories: - Power to the People

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Blogs which link to United 93: Mars and Venus:

» United 93: Two kinds of numb from Kesher Talk
All United 93 entries here. There's a roundup of blogger reviews at Hot Air, both of the movie and critiques of the MSM critics. It was interesting that many spoke of being numbed by the movie (as in temporarily... [Read More]

Tracked on April 30, 2006 01:32 AM


LOve will not change a jihadist's mind or desire to kill infidels, but a bullet will stop him (or her) !

Paul | April 29, 2006 07:37 AM

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