“United 93;” Mass Murder as Light Entertainment

Last April, I reported on my reaction to seeing the trailer for United 93 one night at the cinema. Until then, I had not even known of the film’s existence. I was rather cynical at the time, and could only think of pessimistic reasons why the film had been made.

When the film came out, it was met with overall good reviews by both the public and the critics. Some went out of their way to point out the film’s lack of sentimentality and it’s apparently non-political/propagandistic stance. I didn’t manage to see the film in the cinema during its run, but Martine and I decided we would rent it someday.

That day arrived last week. I must say, I agree with the critics and I revoke my previously cynical view. The film was very well done, with a keen dramatic sensibility (despite our knowing its ending in advance), and a sharp sense of immediacy. It’s not about casting people as saints and sinners, it’s about trying to understand what might really have happened. It also had the full approval of the families of the victims.

Despite all that, it’s not an easy film to watch, but that was never the intention. We never really get to know the characters very well – no better than if we had been on board ourselves. They’re just people around us, some of whom are more noticeable than others. Combined with the close-quarters camera work, that is a counter-intuitive yet excellent way to give us, the viewer, a stronger sense of identity with the event and an uncomfortable sense of realism with the film.

But one thing hit me over the head like a cast iron frying pan, and it wasn’t even in the movie – it was something in the DVD’s special feature documentary about the making of the film. In the documentary, we meet a number of spouses, parents, and children of the victims of the real flight 93. We see them talk about their lost loved ones, see photographs of the victims and the occasionally fuzzy home video. We even see them meeting the cast member who will play their dearly departed. It sounds rather sentimental, and I suppose it was to some extent, but given that it isn’t the film itself, rather a documentary about the film, it is forgivable.

Towards the end of the documentary we see the director of the film welcoming a small group of the surviving family members to a special private screening of the film. I’m thinking “that must be very hard for those people to take. Imagine the queasiness they must be feeling, sitting there in the cinema, about to watch a realistic reenactment of how their loved ones were slaughtered in a murderous plane crash.”

Then I noticed a guy sitting there munching on a bag of popcorn! Whoa! What the…???

I was speechless. I still am. I’m not even going to comment any further. Just look at this screen grab and try to conjure up an explanations for this. I certainly can’t.

Hey sweetie! Let's go to the movies!

14 thoughts on ““United 93;” Mass Murder as Light Entertainment

  1. It boggles the mind, really. Unless it was some kind of nervous reaction? In which case, gum might have been at least slightly more appropriate — say, Valium-flavoured gum.

  2. Well, it’s the same as eating popcorn during Schindler’s List or Hotel Rwanda. Do you or don’t you? I didn’t, but I knitted. It still seem wrong. I still got dirty looks.

    I wonder, though, if eating popcorn in this case was more of a comfort thing. I would have wanted to try to keep the experience normal, and part of that is popcorn at the theatre. A lot of people eat when they’re sad or upset.

  3. But Heather, the difference here is that it’s not just a terrible true story — it’s the fact that this particular screening was for the family of the victims! Not just a random screening with detached viewers.

  4. The cinematic approximation to bringing a lasagna/casserole to a wake?

  5. I had the same reaction at first… but I have to remember that people mourn and cope with death/tragedy in such different (and sometimes seemingly strange) ways. It’s all so personal. The guy could be completely callous, or he could be competely devastated and trying to hang on to some vestige of normalcy through the wierd experience of watching a cinematic reenactment of his loved one’s death. I mean, how freaky is that.

  6. Blork perhaps you are projecting a tad? Who knows how the fellow feels really? I recall informing one of my best friends about my father’s death in the middle of an order at a drive thru: a diet coke and a chocolate chip cookie and a Tammy my Dad died! I was very sad but a band-aid helps temporarily. Thanks for the paella recipe btw!

  7. I made out with my girlfriend during Schindler’s List, and she was Jewish!

  8. … maybe the popcorn was free? LOL. Maybe he’s a brother-in-law. Maybe the family member who died was only worth this free movie for this guy. Maybe he didn’t have lunch that day. Maybe you shouldn’t watch the DVD commentaries! And… that guy in the lower corner looks happy – do we have nothing to say against that?

    Heather, you knit in the theater?? Doesn’t it go “click click click”? I don’t care what others do in the theater as long as I don’t hear it, smell it or feel it. Or see it, actually. So I’m smart and I stay home instead.

  9. All of those “maybes” are possible. Heck, anything is possible! But I can still shoot holes in most of them. Susan, you’re correct that people deal with grief in strange ways, and that is particularly true in the short period of time after the death occurs. But five years later you’d think the oddness would be past.

    Lurker, how am I projecting? Until now I’ve pretty much just presented the situation and asked you, the readers to explain it. There was no projection.

    But I’m happy to project now. For example, it is possible that his attachment to the story is very remote. Perhaps he didn’t even know anyone on the plane, and he’s just accompanying someone who did know one of the victims. In that case, you wouldn’t expect him to have the kind of visceral reaction that would be expected of someone who was closer to the event. But for Pete’s sake, could you have a bit of respect for the people around you who are re-living their grief and mourning?

    I mean really. If you went to a funeral of someone you didn’t know, would your lack of connection to the deceased give you an excuse to behave as if the funeral were just entertainment? Would you pull out a beer and a bag of pretzels and munch away, providing commentary on the eulogy? How about some empathy for the other people?

    Frankly, the “projection” I’m more certain of is that this guy is just a bit thick. He probably doesn’t “get” empathy (an emotion that our society is killing off faster than old-growth forests). He’s also probably very self-centered, and when he was offered a seat at the private screening he probably though little more than “Hey, free movie!”

    He’s the kind of guy who always gets a big bag of popcorn when he goes to the movies, so it never occurred to him that this night would be any different. It is possible that he noticed he was the only one eating popcorn, and he might even have felt self conscious about it for a few seconds. But his reaction was probably to wave his little internal American flag and to assert to himself his god-given right to do whatever he damn well pleases.

    Yeah, it’s projecting, but it’s a projection based on an archetype, so that makes it valid (don’t ask me why — it just is).

  10. Blork, grief has no time limit. It’s been 18 years since I lost my dad and 8 since I lost my mom and the ways in which it hits me (and sometimes my reaction/compensation/coping mechanism) still surprises me. Hell, I can’t walk into the RVH without either a) crying or b) cracking stupid jokes to keep from crying. And that’s 8 years later.

    But with that said, the thing I find strangest about the movie is, not only that it exists at all, but that people treat it as if it were some sort of equivalent to a funeral arrangement or grieving device. It’s not a funeral–it’s a hollywood movie for goodness sakes. Dramatizing the deaths of people we didn’t know and trying to recreate last moments that cannot be known. What’s the point of that, if not for some form of entertainment?

    If it’s for catharsis… that, I would argue, is the bit that is seriously fucked…

  11. The guy in the next row in front to the left of him appears to be munching something too, but it’s hidden.

  12. This reminds of Elizabeth Taylor telling Monty Cliff how she saw people munching on potato chips during Mike Todd’s funeral.

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