Flight 93 : The Movie

One of the ways I procrastinate more efficiently is on Apple's movie trailer site. Most movies made today are so predictable that you can pretty much get the whole thing -- and the most exciting bits -- by watching the sixty-second trailer.

In any case, new on the site today is Universal Picture's Flight 93. As you remember, Flight 93 was the one that crashed in Shanskville, PA, South of DC.

Read on for my analysis of the trailer, and thoughts on what the movie Flight 93 means. It's coming out in April, so get ready for a very spin-filled ride as the right-wing tries to put the Spirit of Bush in the aisle.

I think it's pretty much a given that nearly all of us have "run the footage" -- the footage we'll never see, of course, from the cabin -- of Flight 93 in our own minds. Films are such a part of our narrative vocabulary, and we are so fluent in their language, that we've all become Don Quixotes or Emma Bovaries of the screen. I think it was Gary Trudeau who suggested having a mental Hollywood in whose movies we battle terrorists or fall improbably in love is a male failing, but I have a feeling it's rather universal at this point.

Our mental Hollywood plays -- in a strange sort of projection -- in our elections and in our politics. We obsessively circle around those filmic moments: whether it's John Kerry taking fire in the Swift Boat or the toppling of a Saddam statue in Baghdad.

And we battle each other's films, trying to turn the camera to show something else. In one way of looking, Cindy Sheehan and George Bush go not on set, but wrestle with the controls of some kind of wide American lens.

That's a very amoral depiction of what I fundamentally believe to be an extremely moral conflict. But it's instructive to go back to The Film, the Great Movie, of which our current political scene is a sequel, and ask what it means for us.

What, in other words, does the presumably highly focus-grouped film tell us about what we want our politics to look like? What is the message hanging in the air above Shanksville?

I think the most lucid commentary on the hijacking and crash has been by Harvard Professor Elaine Scarry, who used 93 as an example decentralized, democratic action. Her essay Citizenship in an Emergency was criticized for being somewhat optimistic, somewhat naieve, but these concerns don't matter when it comes to making a film.

I think Scarry was, in the main, right. But Scarry was writing an analytical piece, while the makers of the Universal Picture have undertaken a hortatory one: this is how you should respond in the face of terrorism (I take it for granted that the film will -- false leads aside -- depict the passengers as nothing less than doing the right thing; I don't think they have enough mailbomb scanners to handle the fallout from a film that tried to insert anything more than the most rudimentary and morally unambiguous sideplots.)

Watching and rewatching the trailer gives me hope that the film will indeed depict the passengers in the way Elaine Scarry did: as participating in an impromptu caucus, handling ambiguous information, and coming to a consensus decision. I am certain that the right will try to make an analogy between the imperfect intelligence of the passengers and the "imperfect intelligence" of the president.

But what gives me hope for this film (perhaps Nick Stoller had a hand in it) is the soundtrack. It is not the driving soundtrack that accompanies the relentless violence of the Bush campaign, it is not a soundtrack that plays, as the Bush campaign does, on the poles of Fear and Reaction.

It is actually -- strange to say -- a peaceful one (a few synthesised orchestral clashes aside.) Listen to it. And that's why this film gives me hope. In all its intense you are thereness, the soundtrack acts in counterpoint. If I had to attach a phrase to it, I would describe it as "transcendent". In the language of movies, it is the soundtrack that hooks into ideas of a world of safety, a world in opposition to the reactive one, a world -- importantly -- where the most important thing is not survival, but morality.

This is about as far away as you can get from the world of the Bush administration, the movie screen Bush wants us to watch. In the Bush world -- or, better, the Cheney world -- the film that runs is a Gothic fantasy, where there is a nuclear bomb in New York, and we must methodically slash, and bleed, and burn, and hack at the living body of a terrorist to find its location. It is a world in which you can never do the "right thing", because evil is necessary for survival.

Cheney's remarks on the occasion of the torture bill, indeed, could serve as the Idea Room notes for the Bush Movie. My feeling is that Flight 93 is not it.

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