I recently attended a described screening of the film, United 93, which tells the story of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack with stunning realism and emotional impact.
The film begins as we see the soon-to-be hijackers in their hotel rooms praying, reading the Koran, and going to the airport. The movie then follows the events of that fateful morning, seemingly in real-time, of the passengers and crew of San Francisco-bound United flight 93 from its boarding at the Newark, N.J. airport to its final dive into the farmland of western Pennsylvania.
The action is interspersed with scenes from nearly a half-dozen civilian and military air traffic control centers as they struggle, mostly belatedly, to make sense of and react to all of that day's disastrous events that we know so well. We see many of the misinterpretations, miscommunications and misjudgements that are so apparent to us in hindsight, but were probably inevitable in such an inconceivable event. Because the story seemed to take place in real-time I gained a strong impression of just how quickly everything happened, and, in spite of the obvious blunders depicted, the professionalism and competence of so many people on that morning was also clearly seen.
The most powerful element of the presentation is, as it should be, the tale of the people aboard the airplane; the fanatics as they execute their plan, and the passengers and crew as they move from blissful ignorance of the pending atrocities, to their fear and confusion when the aircraft is seized, on to their horror and resolve as word of the other terrorist attacks reaches them, the tension as they plan a counter-attack under the noses of their enemies, and finally the pandemonium of the actual courageous uprising that comes just short of success but achieves lasting victory in the soil of the Quaker state.
On the whole, the audio description was well done. My only complaint was with the description of the planning and carrying out of the counter- attack. The sound track of the movie got quite loud at that point, and we found it nearly impossible to hear the description track. This was also the case in some other scenes. It was like trying to follow the last two minutes of the final game of the NCAA college basketball tournament on a transistor radio while being seated right at courtside. I suspect that this was because of the volume of the sound in the theater and not a flaw with the volume of the description track. I guess I'll need to see the movie several times to absorb the complex choreography of those final 10 minutes.
I strongly urge that you see this film with the following stipulations.
1. This is a big movie with a sound track to match. You will do yourself a disservice if you don't see it in a theater with sound equipment worthy of such a production, so don't wait for the movie to come out on video unless you have a friend with a phenomenal home entertainment center.
2. This film demands audio description. While the story is centered on the action aboard United flight 93, the large cast of characters, the frequent scene changes and the sub-titles of some of the Arabic conversations of the terrorists will leave you in confusion without the help of description. This is especially true as the film approaches its climax, the wild battle for control of the aircraft. I suspect we could get quite a few more co-sponsors for the Video Description Restoration Act if we could send audio CDs of the described sound track to every member of Congress, so they'd be able to appreciate the full impact of audio description.
3. This film is rated R for very good reasons: very rough language and graphic violence. However, the language and violence aren't gratuitous, being a reflection of the real events of Sept. 11.
4. This motion picture is absolutely not for the squeamish, faint of heart or children. To be blunt, I question the judgment of anybody who would take their kids to this one. This film would pack a punch in any case, but the impact of the film is increased by several orders of magnitude because this heart-wrenching story is not only true, but taking place so recently in our collective experience, unlike such intense films as "Saving Private Ryan" or "Schindler's List" that, while also depicting true events, told a story from a prior generation. You might guess how someone with a personal connection to the story, say a New Yorker, would be affected by it. If you're carrying around emotional baggage from 9/11 or if you thought "The Passion of the Christ" was too intense for you, don't even think of seeing this movie. On the other hand, if you found the former film moving and profound, as I did, you'll probably have the same reaction to this one, too, but remember, unlike "Passion," there's no happy ending in "United 93." The film's end will probably leave you in tears or sitting in stunned silence for several minutes. You have been warned.
The stories from Sept. 11, 2001 will probably provide source material for feature films for many years. This first serious attempt to bring this singular event in American history to the silver screen sets a very high standard for other cinema artists to live up to in their own interpretations of 9/11.
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