reality on the big screen is a funny thing, especially when the
people involved are still alive. Think of Tina and Ike Turner in
What’s Love Got to Do with It, the dysfunctional
lot in Running with Scissors -- or any biopic for that
matter. Now what if the movie were about world changing events and
the powerful people behind those events, or even perhaps the small
people impacted by the actions of such powerful people? And, what
if these events were so recent that government officials, historians,
scholars and pundits had yet to make sense of it all?
is the case this year with United 93, World Trade Center
and The Queen. The first two employ a microscope to detail
a facet of the harrowing events that unfolded on 9/11. World
Trade Center tells the survival tale of two New York City policemen
trapped in the rubble on the
collapsed towers of the title, while United 93 chronicled
the events aboard the fourth plane hijacked that fateful day. On
the other hand, The Queen illuminates the British monarchy’s
stolid reaction to the death of Princess Diana, the near political
meltdown that followed and a young Tony Blair—new to office—working
effusively to stem the void. With names like Oliver Stone and Stephen
Frears behind the projects, they feel (oddly) as if had they been
made with a lesser hand and/or resources that they would have fit
nicely on TV. That's partly because these are the kinds of stories
of heroism, personal ordeal and tabloid tragedy that have normally
made their way to primetime on to ABC, NBC or Lifetime.
separates out two of the films as exceptionally moving is the fact
that they extrapolate, with an surgical precision and awareness,
how the events unfolded. They connect the dots of what
is known and unknown and allow the viewer to be an active participant,
yet never engage in hearsay or conspiracy theory. In the case of
The Queen, actress Helen Mirren (who plays the Queen and
is certain of an Oscar nod) and director Steven Frears have both
said that they agonized over getting it right, and by not doing
or saying anything that the Queen could not, or would not have said.
And director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) and
writer Tim Bevan held hard to the information detailed in The
9/11 Commission Report and employed several FAA personnel,
on duty that day, to play themselves. The compelling power of these
films is that they take the viewer into the blind spots beyond their
factual sources. No one knows of course exactly what happened second
by second on Flight 93 or what the Queen and Prince Charles said
to each other in the halls of Balmoral, but the filmmakers go to
arduous extremes to create an interpretation that will hold up to
common sense, history and critics alike.
as World Trade Center is, it is simply the retold ordeal
of two survivors from the implosion of the World Trade Towers. Because
it is a firsthand account and the principals are still with us,
the film does not carry the power of intrigue that the other two
do. There is no mystery that needs light. The story is finite and
not open to speculation.
makes United 93 such a distinctively unique film is the
firsthand experience the director affords the viewer. The
point of view has you sitting at the back of the plane. As it lifts
off, you’re a virtual passenger privileged with foresight
and imbued with a profound sense of dread. You feel inept, claustrophobic
and doomed. And when the terrorist seize the plane the panic, terror
and anger is shocking and new -- even though you know how things
will play out. And in the final frames, just as you detach, you
get to taste the cathartic acts of the heroism and sacrifice, even
as you hope to defy logic, wishing that something will change this
time, that there will be some plot twist and lives will be spared.
It never comes and it rips you up.
The Queen you’re pretty much the classic fly on the
wall, granted the privilege of observing the Queen and the Prince
in human moments that would never be observed in their public lives.
It’s a straight forward dramatization, bolstered by fierce
research and the strength of its able performers.
what about twenty, thirty, maybe a hundred years from now, when
the Queen’s diary and Charles’s letter become public,
will the story hold? Might there not be some testimony from one
of Osama bin Laden’s associates that changes our understanding
of 9/11 or perhaps an unreleased recording of a phone call from
one of the doomed passengers to a loved one on the ground that alters
how events are currently recorded? Could it be too soon for these
World Trade Center, because the survivors were there to
offer their consult, the prospect of revision is small to non-existent.
In the case
of The Queen and United 93 the filmmakers not
only did their homework, but held a respectful approach, while being
journalistic in their methodology. The result in both cases is brave,
cathartic and moving. Especially with United 93, the time
was right. Americans needed a positive swing from a day that otherwise
held nothing but terror and uncertainty. And Greengrass delivered
it to them, without cliché and only answering to truth.
amazing about The Queen is the revelation of just how tenuous
the monarchy’s hold on power was, how close they came to toppling
and just how far the young Tony Blair (a wonderful and underappreciated
Michael Sheen) went to save them, only to, ironically, later be
undone (his resignation is still awaiting a termination date) by
world changing events that stemmed from 9/11.
T. B. Meek