I just got back from seeing “United 93” and want to address the question of whether it is “too soon” for a movie about Sept. 11, 2001, the worst day in recent American history. But first, a joke.
It’s more of a quip, actually, one that’s often used when someone relates an experience that went from bad to worst: “Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” The reference, as you surely know, is to one of the other worst days in history, April 14, 1865, when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while at the theater with his wife.
I have no idea when that line entered the national lexicon. Surely, it was after Lincoln’s murder had passed from living memory. I bring it up simply to remind us all that time, distance and human nature have this way of transmuting even the rawest tragedy into something bearable. This is how we survive, how we get by and move on. Otherwise, we would grieve a thing forever.
Someday, there will be Sept. 11 jokes. Romantic comedies and maybe a musical, too. Is it too soon for that now? Of course. I expect it will be too soon for the rest of our lives. This atrocity is more visceral to us than it will be for future generations. We recoil at anything that trivializes that day.
But that’s not the question that’s been endlessly debated in media circles over the last few weeks. Rather, the question has been: Is it too soon for “United 93”? Is it too soon for a stark, solemn and sobering depiction of how passengers on the fourth hijacked jet of that awful morning overpowered their captors, driving the plane into the ground and sparing us what might have been the most emotionally crippling blow of all: the destruction of the U.S. Capitol.
Is it too soon for that? The question vexes me.
We’re not talking about taste here, after all. No one has said “United 93” is a bad or exploitative movie. So the issue of whether it is “too soon” for this film clearly springs from a less high-minded concern: that it will hurt too much; that it will be too visceral a reminder of too painful a day. As director Paul Greengrass told my colleague, Miami Herald film critic Rene Rodriguez, the question “is just code for “I don’t want to talk about it.’ But we have to talk about it.”
I could not agree more.
And I wonder: When did we become like this, a people too dainty for emotional heavy lifting? Where, in our lives of therapy, acquisition and entitlement, did we evolve the notion that we have a constitutional right to never feel bad? How did we become such wimps?
Make no mistake: “United 93” is a hard movie. Greengrass puts you ON that plane, brings back the urgency, confusion and terror of that day when the unthinkable would not stop happening. The scene that intercuts between hijackers and passengers all muttering anxious prayers to God is miraculous for how succinctly it captures our oneness and our division. The scene where the passengers storm the cockpit is heart clenching and proud.
When my screening ended, the audience was silent except for some sniffling. Reality took a moment to seep back in. It was difficult to get up and walk out.
So yes, it’s a hard movie. But it’s a necessary one, too.
Do you ever get the feeling that we have, in some sense, forgotten Sept. 11? That five years later, distracted by a bloody but unrelated war, an incomprehensible president, a new season of “American Idol,” gas at more than $3 a gallon, that day has become something of an abstract? It feels that way to me, feels as if 9/11 has become slightly less than real, become rhetoric, legend, the trump card a politician plays to pass a bill or condemn an opponent.
Now, here comes this jolting reminder of what it really was: a morning of chaos, a morning of loss, a morning of resolve. A most terrible American morning.
So I have trouble with the question of whether “United 93” arrives too soon. Some of us would say it arrives not nearly soon enough.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His e-mail address is: [email protected]