Monday, August 30, 2010

Day 144: United 93

Written & Directed by Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy & Ulimatum) United 93 tells the story of the events that took place on United Airlines Flight 93, one of the planes that was hijacked on September 11; this is the Boeing 757-222 that eventually crashed in a Pennsylvania field, despite efforts by passengers to overpower the hijackers.

The film attempts to play out the flight in ‘real time’ and owes the detail of what took place on the flight to the phone calls made from those on the plane to loved ones on the ground, who co-operated with the filmmakers to give this movie as much faithfulness to the truth of what took place, as is possible.

United 93 is a movie not for the faint-hearted. When I saw it in the cinema in 2006, there weren’t many of us in an already small picture-house. It is/was harrowing in that no one walking into that cinema could be unaware of what the ending of this story is that we’re heading towards. It is the veritable example of one definition I have heard of the "tradegic" story: “’s like watching a car speed towards the edge of the cliff at 90mph. You know that it’s going to go off the edge, you know that there’s nothing you can do about it, yet you’re compelled to watch.”

The film and story begin early on the morning of 9/11, we are with the hijackers, praying in their bedrooms; this is the opening gambit of the of the next 106 minutes and because we know who these people are and what they are about to do, the tension starts here, right at the get-go. We switch between the lives of the hijackers, the passengers, the military and the air traffic controllers in New York and Boston on a day that began just like any other day.

Ben Sliney, the man in charge of air space over metropolitan New York, plays himself, just like many others in the film do, adding to the authenticity; it is he who made the call to completely shut down American airspace on that day. The film is two-parts mesmerising, three-parts frustrating and seven parts agonising to watch as the air traffic controllers pick up on the four planes that diverted from their courses that day to go about their own business on that fateful day, having no idea what is taking place before their very eyes. However we do know what's going on. “A hijacking? We haven’t had one of those in years?!”

I have heard United 93 described as “one of the most powerful, gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, riveting and touching ‘you-are-there’ films ever made”. I agree. From the opening scene to the final moment it does not let up.

Day #144 Tip: Tell a story in a Treatment
I know when I’m “in” a great movie; I’m not think about the performances, the cinematography, the script or the music, I’m in the story wanting to know what happens next. Testimony to the power of the film that is United 93 - and this will sound ludicrous - is that I still think and hope that right up until the last seconds, the passengers might pull the plane and themselves out of their desperate situation.

How can I possibly think this, when I’d had five years to absorb what had taken place on that day? I still think it now when I watch the DVD, nine years on from those events?! It’s the strength of story and the power of hope, I guess?

On a practical writer’s note, I am reminded that even though a Treatment must go into great detail, it’s a phenomenal story that will keep the reader going and get the writer over the line. I want to quote, again, from Screen Australia’s document ‘What is a Synopsis? An Outline? A Treatment?’ (prepared by Michael Brindley):

“...the more ‘explaining’ that’s included, the more mechanical or technical detail, the more the
story calls attention to itself as a construct. Although the treatment will be read by seasoned professionals, they too want to be engrossed in the story.”

Testimony to the power of story - in United 93 and many other films - must be the belief in a different outcome for all concerned, even in the face of knowing that it just can’t be so. Or is that just delusion?

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