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Cinematically Thinking
   Seeking Truth in Dramatized Reality
   by T.B. Meek

Re-creating 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?

Such 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.

What 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.

Harrowing 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.

What 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.

With 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.

But 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 films?

Again, 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.

What’s 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


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