Stephen King on ”United 93” — The Pop of King gives us his take on the Paul Greengrass film

kingcolumnI’m a fast feeler but a slow thinker, so it took me a while to figure out why the reviews of United 93 left me feeling angry. Especially considering the fact that they were almost entirely positive, and I agreed with them — I think it is a shoo-in for a Best Picture nod at Oscar time. I’ll go even further. Now, more than five weeks after seeing it on the day it opened, I think it’s one to put on the same shelf with The Godfather. The reviews don’t reflect that, of course — film critics rarely go so far — but the groundwork is there. In preparation for this piece, I read through nearly three dozen reviews and came across few discouraging words. Not even on the blogs, where, as a rule, the self-appointed critics eat their young.

My feeling coalesced into thought when I read the title of Jack Mathews’ review in the New York Daily News: ”Excellent but Unbearable.” Near the end, Mathews says, ”…you can certainly question the point of making a movie that…leaves us with the same sickening mix of loss and anger we felt at the time.”

With that remark in mind, I went through the reviews again and found that all but two or three raised the question of whether or not it was still ”too soon” to make a movie about the events of 9/11. Most concluded that it wasn’t, but advised caution on the part of would-be viewers (extreme caution in some cases, it seemed to me). Reading those notices again, in this light, helped me understand why I was so angry: Those reviews infantilize the American public.

Well, to a large extent that’s been going on for a long time — eat your veggies, don’t party too hearty, wear your bike helmet, wear your seat belt, sweetums, or Mr. Policeman gonna give you a ticket. Maybe we even need some of this, but considering that 9/11 started a war — or served as the excuse for one, depending on your political point of view — that has already cost nearly as many American lives as were lost on that September day, I think most of us over the age of 18 (and many under it) are capable of watching how the 40 doomed souls on Flight 93 behaved in their final hour. Especially since many seem to have acquitted themselves with the sort of guts and backs-to-the-wall ingenuity that Americans celebrate each July.

We’re hypocritical from belly to spine when it comes to film violence, you know? When I hear critics warning audiences that United 93 might upset them — in the same year that Eli Roth’s ferocious and bloody Hostel topped the box office — I can only shake my head in amazement. It’s enough to make a person recall Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, snarling ”You can’t handle the truth!”

The don’t-wake-the-baby signs are all there, and not just from film critics who wanted Mr. and Mrs. Average Moviegoer to know what they’d be getting into with United 93. There is the current administration’s effort to manage combat footage from Iraq (what combat footage?) and their effort to ban any coverage of returning flag-draped coffins. They don’t want us to look; they feel we might be disturbed; they think we’re not quite ready. After being seriously wounded by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad, ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff effectively became a nonperson. Kimberly Dozier of CBS, injured as part of a news crew that got blown up in Baghdad (with two crew members dead), has been sighted once. In a way, her lone sighting sums the whole deal up: It consisted basically of Army personnel, looking like pallbearers, surrounding what appeared to be nothing but tubes and monitors. The woman herself had disappeared. Did I want to view her pain, her wounds? God, no. But she deserved more than the bureaucracy gave her (and us): She’s doing as well as expected, okay? Now go and look at something nice. How about Robin Williams in RV?

But there’s more upsetting stuff in the pipeline, possibly including Oliver Stone’s big-budget World Trade Center. It seems clear that this painful subject has spurred at least one director—Paul Greengrass—to the best work of his life. It may well do the same for Oliver Stone, a great filmmaker on those occasions (JFK was not one of them; Platoon was) when he cares to remove his head from his ass. But remember that the bottom line in Hollywood is the buck. Hollywood will be watching closely to see if America can ”handle the truth!” Maybe that isn’t the way it should be, but it’s the way it has to be in a society that doesn’t subsidize its film industry.

Subsidized or not, Hollywood has a powerful voice, and it will holler ”Look at this! See this! Think about this!”…as long as people are brave enough to look, see, think, and pay for the experience. It’s clear from the reviews that a lot of critics think the moviegoing public is too scared to do that when it comes to 9/11. Scared of pretty much everything, in fact, but fake blood and rubber monsters.

One of the few critics who didn’t raise the ”Is America ready?” question was ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’S Lisa Schwarzbaum. She asked a better one, I think: Do we need to see this? The philosopher George Santayana, who died almost 50 years before 9/11, had the answer to that one: ”Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

”When I hear critics warning audiences that United 93 might upset them—in the same year that the ferocious and bloody Hostel topped the box office—I can only shake my head in amazement.”

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