Monday, May 01, 2006

21st-century Thermopylae

"Go, stranger, and in Lacedaeamon tell,
That here, obedient to their laws, we fell."

-- Leonidas at Thermopylae, 480 B. C.




During a Persian invasion of Greece in the year 480 B. C., a force of 300 Spartan hoplites under the command of Leonidas, aided by some 700 Thespians under Demophilus, defended the narrow pass at Thermopylae against Xerxes and his tens of thousands of annealed troops. Eventually a Greek defector betrayed the defenders to the Persians, who were then able to outflank the pass and slaughter its defenders, including Leonidas and his 300. The Persians then advanced on Athens and sacked it, but the delay occasioned by the heroic resistance of the Spartans allowed the Greek city-states sufficient time to unite and regroup, which in turn set the stage for the decisive Battle of Salamis, fought later that same year.

I have always regarded courage as the pinnacle of human virtues, and ever since childhood I have loved stories about heroes, and tales of desperate battles for noble causes, fought against long or hopeless odds. And I draw strength and inspiration from stories of ordinary people rising to extraordinary occasions and doing noble and great things under the stress of the moment. Thermopylae and the Alamo quickly come to mind as examples, and I have known about both battles since I have been old enough to read books. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when I learned of United Airlines Flight 93 and the heroic stand of its passengers and crew, which probably saved the United States Capitol and hundreds of lives, what they did resonated with me in much the same way as the stories of Thermopylae and the Alamo. To this day, the Flight 93 saga continues to fascinate me, and I simply cannot get enough of it. I've read both major books about it, plus dozens of Flight 93-related articles, both on the Internet and in print.

This past Friday evening, April 28, I attended the first showing of "United 93" at a multiplex in Chandler. I almost never go to see R-rated movies, but made an exception for this one, and I am grateful that I did. I was pleased that the theater was mostly full for this showing, despite all the media-driven whining about it being "too soon" for a major motion picture about 9/11 and the widespread predictions that few would want to see this one. When it ended, there were scattered sobs around the theater, followed by clapping. This film fully justified both emotions.

This was a raw, powerful, gut-wrenching experience, and easily the most intense movie I have ever seen. With only a few brief exceptions, every scene takes place either on the flight itself or in the military, air-traffic control, and FAA installations on the ground. Unlike the made-for-TV movie of the same event, shown on A&E over the weekend, "United 93" does not show the dynamic between the passengers on the plane and their family members and others on the receiving ends of their cell-phone calls. All of the action is filmed using hand-held cameras, which lends the appearance of a documentary, as well as a sense of immediacy that is lacking in the A&E version.

Nobody from the usual Hollywood crowd appears in this film, which also makes it seem more real. However, all of the actors were well-chosen, and performed their roles very convincingly. The actor who plays the part of Capt. Jason Dahl is himself a United Airlines captain in real life, and Ben Sliney, the man who directed the FAA's response to the unfolding disaster, appears as himself. As I read the closing credits, I was quite surprised to learn that several other people also appeared as themselves in this film. The hijackers, at first blush, do not look like cold-blooded, ruthless killers; but then, neither did the real ones. The producers and directors obviously wanted "United 93" to appear as realistic as possible, and in my judgment they succeeded.

The script adheres closely to what is known about the flight, or what can be reasonably inferred from what is known about it. One of my few disappointments about "United 93" stems from knowing that coffeepots of boiling water were among the improvised weapons used against the hijackers. I have always hoped that at least one of the terrorists got a good faceful of it, but if it happened, "United 93" does not show it. (The A&E version does.) However, the big-screen version does suggest that the passengers and crew succeeded in killing at least one of the hijackers before the plane went down, whereas A&E's does not. There is apparently some evidence to suggest that one of the hijackers was indeed killed during the cockpit struggle, and I like to think that he got the best of both worlds: one or two facefuls of boiling-hot water, followed by strangulation or beating or some other richly-deserved form of painful death. (In the movie his neck is broken by one of the passengers, and viewers can hear the cracking sound even amid all the chaos of the airborne struggle.) But in any event, although it is certain that all four hijackers achieved their goal of martyrdom in the holy name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful, they were only able to do so according to the terms and conditions ultimately set by the likes of Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, Mark Bingham, and Thomas Burnett, and there is something very satisfying about that. (Another minor disappointment, by the way, is that Todd Beamer's famous line, "Let's roll!" is spoken in passing as part of an ongoing conversation, and is not depicted as the Remember-the-Alamo battle cry we all would like to believe it was. But then, perhaps the movie has it wrong, and the rest of us understood it correctly.)

I attended this showing alone, not quite knowing what to expect from it, and wondering if this movie would be a bit much for my wife and daughter. But now, having seen it, I expect to see it again this coming weekend, probably with Vanessa -- and perhaps with her mother as well, if Sheila is feeling up to it. Although "United 93" is intense and violent, it is not gory, and I believe every American over the age of about 12 should see it. In my case, I want to take Vanessa to see it because she has absolutely no sense of history and little knowledge of current events, and this movie is all about heroes and history and the world in which she will grow up, raise a family, work, and vote. And most important, this is a story which needs to be told and retold and remembered.

(Update: Mona Charen weighs in on the movie in this column in the May 2 edition of Jewish World Review, and explains why she took her 10- and 12-year-old sons to see it. I agree wholeheartedly with her reasoning, as well as her views on the film itself. And I especially agree with the very last line in this column: "Take your kids. They need to see the face of the enemy.")

1 Comments:

Blogger Julie D. said...

That's a really great review Garry, and one that makes me feel like seeing the movie. Thanks!

1:39 PM  

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