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Fishing Without Nets Examines a Hijacking from the Somali Pirates’ POV

Perhaps the most frightening thing about blockbuster thrillers and action films is their purposeful lack of empathy, their reliance on faceless others whose deaths — comic and exhilarating — allow the heroes to bond and grow and find their smiles or whatever. A studio film like Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler, which devoted its final third to the killer’s post-arrest therapy, would be even more surprising today than it was in ’68.

That explains some of the hosannas that greeted Paul Greengrass’s Somali-pirate thriller Captain Phillips last year. Stylishly shaky in camerawork but no great shakes as drama, the movie distinguished itself by daring to look beyond good guys and bad guys and remind us that its antagonists are people. It’s not excusing their actions to acknowledge that global poverty has more to do with piracy than, say, inherent black-hatted evilness.

Now Cutter Hodierne’s gorgeous,
harrowing debut feature, Fishing Without Nets, goes further. Rather than asking you to feel a bit for the pirates, Hodierne’s film puts you in their shoes. Again and again, the camera bobs behind uncertain Abdi (Abdikani Muktar), a Somalian fisherman/husband/father/nice guy, as he journeys deeper into places he probably shouldn’t: a ramshackle pirate camp, a foreign oil tanker, at times into wide and empty expanses of ocean and desert.

When we meet him, Abdi is still trying to fish an ocean that has been poisoned, to feed a child in a shanty of a country that offers no opportunities. Abdi’s skills with a boat bring him to the attention of local pirates, who finally prevail upon him to send his wife and child off to a safe house and sign on for a raid out in the nearest shipping routes — and the possibly grand payday to follow. How else can he care for his family? But worry pinches his easy smile: This isn’t what his father raised him to be.

What follows isn’t especially violent, but it is raw and upsetting, even with Hodierne’s eye for seascapes or the
way sweat can glisten as it pools in the clavicles. The perspective sticks mostly with the pirates during the protracted hostage negotiations, but Abdi shares a few affecting moments with a captive Frenchman (Reda Kateb). Even the scenes of imprisonment — and of pirates shouting and pointing their crusty old AK-47s — stir complex feeling: The Frenchman and Abdi play checkers with bottle caps on a grid of hand-scribbled plywood. Even the prisoner’s heart seems to be breaking. (He’s figured out that he’s of no value to these guys dead, or even wounded.) The pirates, meanwhile, prefer a grimmer game: competing to be the quickest to jam a cartridge into a gun and get the nozzle pointed at someone else. It’s at once a contest, a practical skill, and a terrifying admission that, in their world, there’s no other skill that matters.

Most of the film plays like a pirate
procedural — like an ordinary ship-taking rather than a singular one. But dissatisfaction among the Somalis eventually leads to terrible complications and, of all things, a curiously beautiful adventure-film ending. The final shots boast some existential man-v.-nature grandeur, but never anything like grandiosity, and they will leave audiences sifting the implications: Does this powerful film have a happy ending? Is one even possible?

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Action Filmmakers John and Peter Hyams Talk Enemies Closer

While they’ve collaborated on several projects, filmmakers John and Peter Hyams’s respective approaches to action filmmaking are basically different. Father Peter (Timecop, Sudden Death) emphasizes the importance of a film’s screenplay in determining its tone while son John (Dragon Eyes, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) considers editing to be the most crucial stage of a film’s development. In time for the release of Enemies Closer, a new film directed by Peter and edited by John, the Voice talked to the Hyamses about working with star Jean-Claude Van Damme, using gore to establish a film’s complex tone, and comparing Paul Greengrass–style shaky-cam to Parkinson’s disease.

Based on his recent collaborations with you both, it seems like Jean-Claude Van Damme has become more comfortable in meaty character-actor roles. How do you collaborate with him on creating his characters?

PH: When they asked me to do Enemies Closer, I read it, and thought it was an interesting premise. Originally, Jean-Claude was the hero of the movie, but I said, “No, I will only do it if Jean-Claude is the villain. We have to create a character for Jean-Claude where he is flamboyant and funny and lethal.” His character’s emotions shift at 90 degrees at a time: He abruptly goes from being kind to being nuts. I had a certain credibility with Jean-Claude, so everyone, including Jean-Claude, signed off on that. Some people don’t know this, but Jean-Claude’s actually really fun, and I wanted to play off that.

JH: Jean-Claude has become a lot more interesting as a character actor than the good-guy action performer. That’s perhaps one of the benefits of him becoming older, having experience. Right now, a close-up of Jean-Claude — his face tells a lot of stories that, in the past, it didn’t. Anyone that spends time with Jean-Claude knows that he’s a guy that wears his emotions on his sleeves. He’s also not afraid to show himself in different ways. So, when the concept of Day of Reckoning was established, we thought, “How do we do something completely different with this movie than we did with the last film?” One of the basic ideas was to turn the protagonist of the past movies into, if not the antagonist, then the destination of the films. Day of Reckoning is a journey movie with a new protagonist, and [Jean-Claude] is the character that looms over the whole film, like the Harry Lime the hero is going to find.

John, you cut out chunks of dialogue in Dragon Eyes so you could try to convey more information visually. What, for both of you, is the role a screenplay plays in the way you visualize, shoot, and edit a film?

JH: Different movies call for different treatments as far as how faithful you’re going to be. Something like a Coen brothers or Tarantino film is really beholden to the dialogue. However, for me — and maybe this has to do with my documentary experience — I really like to think of the script as something you use as a structural standpoint. It’s something you put a lot of work into, figuring out how to track this story and these characters. I believe in taking whatever is written on the page and taking it to another place on the set. Actors bring a lot to the table, in that sense. And once I start cutting, I don’t look at the script. At that point, I look at the film as a bunch of raw footage: How it goes together and what the scenes are can really change, so you need to keep yourself open to that.

PH: With all due love and respect, I don’t agree. The script is the script. Your function is to first get the script to a place where everybody sees and hears the movie you’re making. The script isn’t a starting point or a sketch: It is a well-defined blueprint for the film. Your job as a conductor is to read the composer’s score, and get the orchestra to play that something realizes the script.

How do you work with action choreographers to establish characters through action? I was especially wondering how you worked with Borislav Iliev on Van Damme’s introductory fight in Enemies Closer, and for John, I wondered about choreographing the sports store scene with Larnell Stoval in Day of Reckoning.

PH: An action sequence isn’t very different than an acting sequence. I had a series of balletic and athletic moves in mind that are choreographed and rehearsed over and over again, and I imposed them on Bobby, my stunt choreographer, who I think was extraordinary. If somebody has an extraordinary idea on how to make things better, I’m fine with it. However, I need the ideas that I want in those sequences. I try to keep them very controlled and the way they were conceived.

[

JH: I really think Larnell is one of the most talented choreographers out there. He really has a great understanding of the narrative elements of a fight; he was one of my most intimate collaborators. So with a sequence like that, none of the beats or moves are actually that defined in the script. But the script gives you the flavor for what kind of scene it is, and in that scene, the characters were bulls in a china shop. In the script, we talk about aluminum baseball bats, but I really encouraged Larnell to come up with the fight himself. He would pre-viz the whole thing, and in the case of that fight, we stuck pretty close to his pre-viz. There’s a few things here and there we eliminated, but he has such a good sense of the general movements of a fight — like it’s a dance, as Dad said. I also relied on [actor] Scott Adkins; he has a great mind, not just for specific moves, but for how to shoot the moves that he does. But with a guy like Larnell, I’m just trying to inspire him to go in one direction or another.

Humor in action films, especially during action scenes, is tricky, but there’s gruesome, surreal humor in both of your films. And it’s not always for the sake of being extreme, or giving the audience a basic kind of relief. In Peter’s Sudden Death, there’s the fight with the penguin mascot, and the mascot’s head has cotton come out of it before the woman inside the costume is strangled to death. When is violence surreally funny, and when is it just necessarily extreme?

PH: When you first construct a fight between somebody and another person wearing a penguin costume, there is an implied absurdity in that. If you don’t deal with the absurdity in that, you’re dumber than I am, and if you’re dumber than I am, then you’re really dumb! I’m not, and I never have, tried to make a film where the “violence” is only one color. You try to make it more than one color.

JH: Taking Day of Reckoning specifically: The film’s tone was the most important thing, and that’s a thing we established in a lot of ways. I don’t know if it was conscious at the time, but on one level, I was going for a tone Cronenberg has struck very well in his films, where if there’s humor, it’s incredibly deadpan. But what you’re aspiring to is something like The Fly, where he really achieves overt humor. We wanted to be visceral, and a movie that’s as much an action film as a horror film. And as you said, you need to create a release. That release was, in the ’80s or ’90s, one-liners. We wondered, “How do you create a release and humor without really letting on that it’s a joke?” I think our goal the whole time was to make a midnight movie, so the violence is going to go to a place where the only thing you can really do is laugh about it.

What do you guys think of hyper-realistic techniques that guys like Tony Scott, Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams, and Paul Greengrass have used to establish urgency in action films, stuff like lens flares, handheld photography, hyper-fast editing?

PH: I will probably get myself in big trouble — and I really don’t want to, because Paul Greengrass is somebody I so admire — but I think there is a difference between reality and Parkinson’s. I come from a place where you have to show what’s going on, and shaking a camera to the point where you don’t know who’s where kinda negates that necessity. On the other hand, I think the Bourne movies were brilliant, so who am I to say? It’s just not the way I do things. I’m trying to make people feel the punches, to fear for the person who’s falling. I may succeed, or I may fail, but that is my intent.

JH: I agree with my dad. I’m trying to not be predictable in how I edit action scenes; I sometimes prefer extremely long takes. Any way that you can create the illusion that these things are happening in real time is some of the most exciting action filmmaking I’ve seen. Those long takes in Children of Men are some of the best action scenes that have ever been done. That being said, people need to be careful of lumping filmmaker together. I love what Greengrass has done with the two Bourne movies he did. The car chases in both films stand up with The French Connection. But there’s Greengrass, and there’s people that took what he did and saw it as a technique, and it wasn’t necessarily consistent with their movies, or they didn’t know why they were doing with it. Greengrass did something so much [more powerful] than just shaking a camera.

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Captain Phillips is a Hokey High Seas Drama Apt to Turn Stomachs and Elicit Groans

Paul Greengrass’ cinema-of-spasticity reaches new phony lows with Captain Phillips, a based-on-true-life 2008 tale of a cargo ship captain (Tom Hanks) who, while traveling around the horn of Africa, finds his vessel attacked by Somali pirates led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi). From its opening Vermont-set conversation between Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener), Greengrass’ film – written by Billy Ray and based on the real Phillips’ memoir– proves itself interested only in flat expository dialogue, with every uttered word chosen to impart vital plot information, character detail, and simplistic First-vs.-Third World commentary. That conversational falseness is matched by the United 93 and The Bourne Identity filmmaker’s usual handheld cinematography, which bobs and weaves with a shakiness that aims for you-are-there docu-realism, but too often gets in the way of the drama at hand.

Doggedly cutting or panning away from Hanks to the point that there’s little chance for an authentic performance to blossom on-screen, Greengrass’ camerawork is so consistently unstable and nauseating [insert obligatory sea-sickness joke here] that it proves not a reflection of its protagonists’ anxieties but, instead, merely an affection that undermines its own effectiveness by calling such attention to itself.

That sort of self-sabotage is part and parcel of Captain Phillips, which turns its character dynamics hokey by so bluntly paralleling Phillips and Muse – both presented as committed leaders who assume their missions begrudgingly, and are forced to contend with squabbling (and, in Muse’s case, screamy) underlings – and negates its cat-and-mouse tension on the ship, and race-against-time suspense on a life raft, by turning its last act into one long preordained build-up to rah-rah Navy SEAL heroism. It’s a Hollywood-style A Hijacking for dummies.

Captain Phillips screens at the New York Film Festival September 27

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The 51st New York Film Festival Is as Varied as Its Hometown

Last year’s New York Film Festival may have celebrated its golden anniversary, but the 51st edition—launching half a century plus a couple weeks after Lincoln Center’s inaugural fest—has distinctively, determinedly expanded in breadth, offering the closest NYFF has come to a something-for-every-cineast saturnalia. Among the bevy of sidebars alone are “Revivals” (11 little-screened repertory picks, including two by Holy Motors auteur Leos Carax), “Applied Science” (three docs based on ambitious non-film projects, like Google’s digitization of every book ever written), “Motion Portraits” (eight of those; don’t miss the austerely magical cable car curiosity Manakamana), “Emerging Artists” (spotlighting three features each from Mexico’s Fernando Eimbcke and the U.K.’s Joanna Hogg), plus the return of “Views from the Avant-Garde,” featuring a whopping 45 blocks of radical mind-benders.

Largely plucked off the prestigious vines of Cannes, Venice, Locarno, and Berlin, over half of this year’s record-breaking 36 main slate titles represent new work from returning NYFF filmmakers such as Catherine Breillat (Abuse of Weakness), Arnaud Desplechin (Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian), Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin), and Spike Jonze (closing-night selection Her). It’s a sucker’s game to find rhyming themes among this wisely curated lot of formalist documentaries, one-man thrillers, period dramas, and modern comedies, so just imagine programmers Kent Jones, Dennis Lim, Marian Masone, Gavin Smith, and Amy Taubin have locked down a Netflix-style algorithm called “Masterworks and Other Bold Cinematic Visions, Minus That Mediocre Alan Partridge Farce, That You Didn’t Have to Fly to Europe to See.” With an unsurprisingly measured ratio of challenging slow-burners to red-carpet–friendly crowd-pleasers, it’s business as usual, just more so.

The action kicks off September 27 with the world premiere of Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips, a grimly docudramatic recount of the real-life Massachusetts seaman’s calamitous 2009 kidnapping by Somali pirates. With the director’s trademark aesthetic of handheld kineticism and punctuating zooms, this suspenseful high-seas misadventure could be seen as his third entry in some Wiki-thrills trilogy (following his similarly dour white-knucklers about historical chaos, Bloody Sunday and United 93). Politically conscious but emotionally underwhelming, Greengrass’s and screenwriter Billy Ray’s ship might have had more tug if it spent more than one scene and a couple lines of dialogue establishing how desperate motives are deeper than easy vilifications (cf. A Hijacking), but Tom Hanks—chewing through a Boston accent as the besieged Phillips—is absolutely unsinkable.

More tales of survival (uh-oh, themes are materializing): Straightforward in its storytelling and therefore a relentless, visceral experience, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave—presented here by Film Comment—tackles America’s ugly heritage of human bondage as a harrowing first-person experience without being couched in melodrama (Roots), exploitation (Mandingo) or flat-out insincerity (Django Unchained). Its dedication to authenticity and overall lack of editorializing means plenty of thoughtful year-end conversations (and cringe-inducing think pieces) about closure and reconciliation will follow, but don’t be duped by the hyperbolic who, following Telluride and Toronto, proclaimed it the one movie to cure cancer, save Christmas, or at least be the Bestest Best Picture of all time.

Forget all that hype and draw your eyes first to Jehane Noujaim’s potent doc The Square, an even more crucial, immersive, and exhilarating tale of the fight against oppression, which proves that the Egyptian Revolution didn’t end in 2011. Obviously, social media and YouTube played vital roles in the nonviolent takedown of Mubarak’s regime, but Noujaim’s intense, you-are-there observations of the passionate activists camping in Tahrir Square (including The Kite Runner star Khalid Abdalla, whose televised testimony to Anderson Cooper is enough to inspire some overturning of police cars) are more than just muckraking journalism. There’s plenty of distressing and shockingly timely footage (some shot as recently as August) that is rarely-to-never aired by American news outlets, but it doesn’t take a bullet or tear-gas pellet whizzing by the camera to frame the film as a provocative indictment of media negligence, and perhaps the limp inadequacy of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Considering the hellacious frustrations those citizens still experience, nobody had better bitch about their poor gluteal muscles after screenings of Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush, her Czech miniseries about political self-immolation; Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah footnote, The Last of the Unjust; or Lav Diaz’s tough-minded Dostoyevsky reimagining, Norte, the End of History—all hovering around four hours in length. So, too, does Frederick Wiseman’s terrific microscope-view of higher education’s inner workings, At Berkeley, one of the vérité godfather’s richest features yet (a mere four and a half decades after he directed High School). Culled from several weeks of refined, riveting, fixed-camera footage, Wiseman audits a class, embeds with a large-scale student protest, sits in on meetings full of exasperated, resource-challenged faculty members, witnesses a Ph.D. student retooling bionic limbs for a disabled soldier, and winds up speaking volumes about quintessentially American struggles through the institutional microcosm. Don’t miss it, even if you think you learned these lessons from the fourth season of The Wire.

There’s far too much to cover here—including gala tributes to Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett, the 12-feature-long “How Democracy Works Now” series, and a sampler for the Film Society’s forthcoming Jean-Luc Godard retrospective—but allow me to heartily recommend double features with explicit queer sex (the Palme d’Or–winning Blue is the Warmest Color and the French minimalist thriller Stranger by the Lake), fantastic soundtracks (Claire Denis’s Tindersticks-scored, unnerving noir Bastards, the Coen brothers’ ’60s-era Greenwich Village folk panorama of a talented almost-was, Inside Llewyn Davis), and giant steps forward for directors named Jim (Jarmusch’s chic, comically downbeat vampire riff, Only Lovers Left Alive, and James Gray’s formidable, old-fashioned 1920s-set melodrama, The Immigrant).

Oh, but please stop asking about Nebraska. Every festival needs their misfire to make the other programming shine brighter, but Alexander Payne’s dull-as-dirt road trip through the Midwest—as seen through the caricatured relationship between cantankerous dad Bruce Dern and his quietly incensed son Will Forte—is the kind of condescending look at funny-looking, weird-talking Americana that gives New York aesthetes a bad name.

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Just 45 Minutes From Broadway

‘For all actors and actresses . . . and the families that have refused to disown them” isn’t exactly a confidence-inspiring epigraph, but it is fairly accurate in foretelling exactly what Just 45 Minutes From Broadway is up to. By actors, for actors, Henry Jaglom’s film features a group of capital-T Thespians lounging about in and around a country house while alternating between waxing poetic (and nostalgic) about their noble profession, quoting vaunted actors, and airing their collective grievances. In the more straightforward scenes, the actors’-showcase angle is occasionally successful; the film is nothing if not performance driven when the performances themselves are actually the focus. (David Proval, perhaps best-known as Richie Aprile in The Sopranos, stands out. Judd Nelson also has his moments.) But in an overlong sequence shot to resemble an actual play, the acting feels so forced, the staging so wooden, that it’s impossible to be fully engaged in what’s actually going on. The actual story is, if not quite rote, certainly nothing new, and there’s many theatrically and meta-inclined moments with long, uninterrupted shots and handheld camerawork. Altogether, it comes to resemble theater filmed by Paul Greengrass. Doubtless a good deal of this is intentional homage to that old hag the stage, but, while intentionality counts for something, it’s easily subsumed by how intrinsically un-cinematic this all is.

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Matt Damon’s WMD of a Movie, Green Zone

Better late than never—a bang-bang pulse-pounder predicated on the Bush administration’s deliberate fabrication of WMD in Iraq. Paul Greengrass’s expertly assembled Green Zone has evidently been parked for some time on Universal’s shelf. Had the movie been released during the 2008 election season, it might have been something more than entertainment. Still, Green Zone, which could have more accurately been titled Told You So, Jerk-Off!, does gain some coincidental topicality for opening just days after the Iraqi elections and the release of Karl Rove’s new book, Courage and Consequence, even if the zeitgeist has moved on, with the unwinnable war now in Afghanistan and the Bush disaster barely a memory.

Liberals, take such solace as you can. Green Zone is at least a credible piece of movie-making—easily grasped as an amalgam of Greengrass’s artfully vérité docudramas, Bloody Sunday and United 93, and his Matt Damonized conspiratorial thrillers, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. A master of smash-mash montage and choreographed chaos, Greengrass is the best action director working today, adroit at producing the sense of everyone converging and everything happening simultaneously. From the opening frenzy of hopped-up shock-and-awe panic among the Iraqi leadership to the frantic final chopper chase through the back alleys of downtown Baghdad, the movie is nonstop havoc. You catch your breath only to have the wind knocked out by the mirage of the carefree scene around the Green Zone swimming pool.

Green Zone is set in the early months of the Iraq War and seen through the eyes of Matt Damon’s chief warrant officer, parachuted in from a Universal story conference to find Saddam’s hidden Weapons of Mass Destruction. After three successive sites yield nothing but mobs of looters and calcified pigeon shit, Damon is pissed; what’s more, he has the guts to stand up at a mass briefing and complain. Boldly asking for the intel source, he’s slapped down by the brass, brushed off by his CO and told by a Pentagon smoothie (Greg Kinnear) that “Democracy is messy.” Then, following a tip by a friendly Iraqi (Khalid Abdalla), Damon begins to get the picture and sense the fix, even as the Defense Department operatives initiate what amounts to a cover-up coup against the (here good-guy) CIA.

Greengrass’s pyrotechnics aside, Green Zone works mainly because of the hardworking, always-believable Damon. The ultimate good soldier in Saving Private Ryan, the cleverest of con men in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Damon is still a juvenile at 40. He has made a career of alternately projecting and parodying boyish idealism, sometimes in the same movie (e.g., The Informant!). For Green Zone, he’s Bourne again with a difference, a gung-ho figure of incredulous righteous indignation. If there are no WMD in Iraq, then What’s the Muthafuckin’ Deal?

No characters have any more depth than that, but Greengrass has a knack for visual shorthand (a whiff of Abu Ghraib, a taste of “Mission Accomplished”) and stereotypes in motion. He gets maximum mileage out of the twitch beneath Kinnear’s Rum-dumb diffidence, the pained flicker of acknowledgment when smart-ass reporter Amy Ryan realizes she’s been played for a chump, and CIA man Brendan Gleeson’s galumphing kick-away-the-barstool call to arms. And hats off to Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland for allowing Abdalla’s everyman Iraqi patriot to intervene with the movie’s big unanswerable line: “Eet eez not for you Amer-r-ricans to decide wot hoppenz heere!”

As black and white as Helgeland’s script is, the movie may still be too nuanced for mass consumption. As Damon’s idealism merges with realpolitik, the ultimate issue is whether to deal or not with a Ba’athist general. In the end, though, action trumps logic. Damon’s two-fisted, patriotic mega-rogue boy-scout-cum-investigative-soldier is a far less likely figure than the thrill-crazy hero of The Hurt Locker—grabbing Kinnear by his collar and hissing, “Do you have any idea what you’ve done here!?” while Ryan stands by wincing in shame. That kiss-off is a bonanza of false consolation that transports the movie into the fantasy zone of Inglourious Basterds.

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A Star is Bourne (Again)

The Bourne Ultimatum opens in Russia as the amnesiac super-spy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) does what he does best: eludes capture, cracks skulls, broods. Lickety-split he’s en route to Paris, nursing his wounds and breaking out with a bad case of those itchy-scratchy hallucinations known as Hollywood Flashback Syndrome. Choice and painful bits from The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy whiz through his mind’s eye, but before you can mutter “not another threequel” the movie goes into a full-blown techno-thriller frenzy, scattering hyper-compressed plot points from Moscow to Paris to Langley, London, Turin, and New York.

So much for the first 10 minutes, goddamn.

Here’s what’s up: Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), “security correspondent” for The London Guardian, has been tipped in Turin about a black-op CIA umbrella program code-named Blackbriar, the mere mention of which on a cell phone flags some terrifyingly competent post-Patriot Act software. Enter a shady, warmongering CIA bigwig (David Strathairn) and a sweet, nonviolent one (Joan Allen), plus various background über-spooks (Scott Glenn, Albert Finney). Bourne gets caught in the middle when he blips on the grid in pursuit of Ross, whose 411 on Blackbriar may finally explain why he kicks so much ass.

Adapted from Robert Ludlum’s novel by a trio of writers who never met a cloak-and-dagger chestnut they didn’t swallow whole, the story of Bourne’s quest for his origins is often as formulaic as a dry martini, shaken not stirred. But where Bond movies are juiced by a conflict of egos, the Bourne adventures are all about competing intelligence systems—as manifested through action set-pieces. In the case of Ultimatum,
make that flabbergasting, mind-boggling, next-level action set-pieces.

This is director Paul Greengrass’s second Bourne picture after Supremacy, but it’s also a stealth sequel to his last film, United 93. Both are up to the same basic business: generating tension through the interface of two meticulously paced, discretely parceled, highly pressurized sets of information. United 93 unfolds in the unbearable gap between the knowledge of the passengers and the facts on the ground—a distance rendered even more agonizing by our awareness of how it all turns out.

Ultimatum is structured around three gargantuan cat-and-mouse pursuits, each of which pits the extensive, elaborate, high-tech eyes and ears of the CIA against the mobile, intuitive, ultra-alert mind of a single (super) man. The excitement of these sequences has less to do with stunts (first-rate) or spectacle (best car chase ever) than the tango between these two intelligences—and the ways in which the spectator is invited to the dance.

In an astonishing Waterloo Station sequence, where Bourne attempts to make contact with and protect the journalist Ross, Greengrass establishes the CIA surveillance network in tremendous detail—video monitors, field agents, secret microphones, digital schematics—then super-charges the suspense through Bourne’s detection and circumvention. What’s exhilarating here is the clarity of design, the cleverness of its thwarting, and the way the filmmaking immerses the viewer in the whole process.

Greengrass’s Supremacy was one of the few movies to justify a spasmodic handheld aesthetic by keying to its controlling consciousness (a freaked-out amnesiac), thus placing us into an equivalent state of mind as we struggle to steady the flow of visual information just as Bourne struggles to make sense of his circumstances. Ultimatum refines this participatory dynamic even further.

Bravura doesn’t begin to describe Greengrass’s skill in mounting these complex sequences, the second of which maximizes the chaotic topography of the medina in Tangier with the third wreaking magnificent havoc on the streets of Manhattan. This is, simply put, some of the most accomplished filmmaking being done anywhere for any purpose.

I much prefer such virtuosity in the service of unencumbered entertainment to the, uh . . . what was the point of United 93 again? Not that Ultimatum lacks an agenda; it’s actually the more overtly political of the two movies, imparting a coherent message and taking an intelligible stand. Bourne is the action hero as blowback—black sheep of the black-op set, figured in terms of post-9/11 protocols. His early deprogramming is repeatedly linked to the contemporary iconography of humiliation (black hoods) and torture (waterboarding). Strathairn’s CIA agent defends his methods as necessary until “we’ve won,” appropriating the counterintuitive rhetoric of the “war on terror.”

As a political statement, United 93 was defended as a critique of government failure—a rebuttal to the flawless anti-terror tactics of 24—but you could claim the same for any number of military yahoo movies. What’s troubling is its pretense to objectivity, the claim to being as close as possible to an authoritative (even authorized!) re-creation. It is as it was? United 93 and The Passion of the Christ
are basically the same movie for different audiences.

Ultimatum doesn’t have that cross to bear. It’s responsible only to the code of the blockbuster. Concentrating on an effective dramatic resolution may explain why the political conclusion is delivered with such unexpected force—the allegory is unforced. The entire Bourne trilogy has been a maze of intrigue and double-cross winding to a final face-off with the Minotaur: the beast that made Bourne who he is. What (and whom) Ultimatum ultimately confronts flips the standard conspiracy thriller on its head. Greengrass gets there so deftly it’s enough to make yours spin.

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A Memorial at Once Visceral and Sober

Paul Greengrass’s approximately real-time dramatization of what took place aboard Flight 93—which left Newark for San Francisco the morning of September 11, 2001, and crashed in western Pennsylvania 81 minutes after takeoff —is best understood as a memorial. Like most memorials, it is respectful, premised on competing obligations to the dead and the living, and eager to stress that the deaths were not in vain. As written and directed by Greengrass, the ex–BBC documentarian who already has one skillful re-creation of a historical atrocity under his belt ( Bloody Sunday, about 1972’s Derry massacre), United 93 is at once scrupulous and ghoulish, visceral and sober. Perhaps mindful of his target audience, Greengrass makes sure to dangle some red-state red meat. In the blurry rebellion that is the film’s raison d’être—a spoiler follows—the passengers appear to kill two of the terrorists. It’s the most problematic of the movie’s unverifiable events, and one might say its biggest concession to popular taste. Painful as this movie is, it’s even more excruciating to imagine how it might play in some of the country’s multiplexes.

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The New Disaster Movie

The movies love mayhem, and inevitably, the televised events of 9-11 were experienced by millions as a sort of real-life disaster film. Is a movie about 9-11 then a disaster movie about a disaster movie?

Oliver Stone’s upcoming World Trade Center is in some sense a remake of the 1974 Towering Inferno; United 93 could be construed as a revisionist sequel to the ’70s Airport series. One may be mega and the other meta, but both take their disasters extremely seriously. World Trade Center will likely be promoted as the most significant event in American history since JFK; United 93 is already the first movie since The Passion of the Christ to position itself as something other than entertainment.

Long ago, Susan Sontag wrote that only in the movies could one “participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself.” Yes, and what’s more, enjoy it! The old-school disaster movies that glutted theaters during the run-up to the millennium eschewed all but the most perfunctory human interest in F/X spectacles of wholesale urban destruction. Armageddon, Deep Impact, and Godzilla—three of 1998’s top-grossing movies behind Titanic—featured the destruction of New York City. Magical thinking perhaps, but on September 11, 2001, Hollywood felt implicated. Was Al Qaeda guilty of intellectual piracy? Within days, studios and studio execs were recalling, recutting, and canceling movies.

The summer of 2004 brought a new sort of disaster film—one with pretensions to responsibility. In old-school disaster films, nature was the terrorist. And while greedy, mendacious, or foolish individuals might be at fault, the system was essentially sound and sufficiently internalized to allow a natural leader to emerge from the chaos, often in uniform. The Day After Tomorrow, however, clumsily inserted itself into the presidential election by transparently blaming the Bush administration for the threat of global climate change.

A few months later, the puppet animation Team America satirized the whole notion of the new socially responsible disaster film, but last summer Steven Spielberg gave the mode its first real hit: War of the Worlds deliberately evoked the trauma of 9-11, complete with political allegory in which a deadbeat dad becomes a heroic solid citizen. The movie was not meant to be seen so much as experienced—or rather, since it reimagined the recent past, re-experienced. (The summer’s other great disaster show, Hurricane Katrina, reflected less well on the nation’s leadership—as did the recent TV movie Fatal Contact, remaking The Birds in the light of avian flu.)

Poseidon, which occupied the ‘plexes last weekend, is an old-fashioned disaster flick, and not only because it remakes the 1972 Poseidon Adventure. Poseidon is pure showbiz and all business: The audience doesn’t have to wait for the catastrophe. The movie is total action, predicated on the beauty of mayhem and the suspense of survival. Hundreds of extras may “die” for our amusement, but who cares? In lit-crit terms, Poseidon is a comedy—ending with the construction of two marriageable young couples. Yet the shadow of 9-11 is not altogether absent. The classic Vietnam- and Watergate-inflected disaster films of the early ’70s showed heroism under stress practiced by nearly everyone except top public officials;
Poseidon‘s principals include an ex–mayor of New York.

United 93 resembles an old-school disaster film in that it has been constructed as an Event everyone must see to fully participate in American life. But unlike
Airport or Poseidon, United 93 is not fun—if anything it is a ritual ordeal. Although time will tell how the movie will play overseas, it’s possible that the enjoyment demographic is strictly Al Qaeda. Zacarias Moussaoui was reported to have “smiled broadly” when the Flight 93 tape was played during his trial 12 days before Paul Greengrass’s film had its premiere at Tribeca.

Why was United 93 made, and why should people want to experience it? Is the movie a commercial enterprise, a form of knowledge, a sort of group therapy? Thanks to Greengrass’s brilliant direction, United 93 looks and sounds like a documentary—but it is a dramatic reconstruction. Despite the existent phone calls and flight recording, there can be no absolute certainty of what happened during the flight. The fatal stabbing of the plane’s captain and co-pilot, as well as a first-class passenger and one flight attendant, can only be surmised—and yet are witnessed by those who see the movie.

New disaster is experiential and communal. Explicit in its use of real time, United 93 is designed for audience participation. Just as the now notorious trailer distilled the movie’s narrative arc (albeit without offering the final catharsis), audiences mimicked the action: Having paid to see Inside Man, unsuspecting viewers had their attention “hijacked.” According to some descriptions, the angry patrons at AMC Loews Lincoln Square banded together to yank the trailer.

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Since the ending is known, United 93 substitutes anxiety for suspense. Perhaps twice as much screen time is devoted to the FAA and air force command centers as to the plane itself. Is the system working? “We’re trying to get the military involved—we’re not getting an answer,” beleaguered air traffic controllers cry. The military, for its part, can’t find the president or vice president. (The spectator may insert a mental cutaway to Bush in Florida, reading “The Pet Goat.”) Greengrass forestalls the disaster, wringing maximum tension from the viewer’s foreknowledge that the passengers are doomed.

As War of the Worlds was both reviled and praised for exploiting 9-11, United 93 was said to be said—by whom?—to have been made “too soon.” But how could the movie be too soon, when the story itself was twice dramatized this season on TV?

Discovery Channel’s The Flight That Fought Back annotated re-enactments with interviewed family members; a few months later the docudrama Flight 93 attracted 6 million viewers, the most watched program in A&E history. (Less immediate and more intimate than United 93, Flight 93 was specifically designed for home viewing: At the heart of the movie are the agonizing phone conversations between the passengers and their distraught families, most located in beautiful suburban neighborhoods.)

Although not nearly as artful or coherent as United 93, Flight 93 received generally respectful reviews and was praised by the conservative
National Review as a metaphor for the war on terror: “The bad guys wield box cutters, invoke the name of Allah, and kill people; the Americans vote, say the Lord’s Prayer, and fight back.” The movie was not only appreciated for its realness but its politics.

Considering how frequently the actual Flight 93 was invoked by Bush in late 2001 and throughout 2002, a White House screening for United 93 has been conspicuously absent. Still, the movie did secure an early, enthusiastic endorsement from Rush Limbaugh. The talk show star characterized United 93 as “inspirational” while calling for the sort of leadership shown aboard the flight and describing his own experience of watching the movie: “The overwhelming emotion I had was sheer anger at the terrorists, bordering on hatred . . . ”

Rage strengthened Limbaugh’s resolve: “This movie is going to refocus, for those who see it, the exact reason we are in the war on terror.” (It’s worth noting that Limbaugh almost certainly saw the movie with its original end title, “America’s war on terror had begun.” Before release, this Pavlovian cue was removed.) Nor was that the only political conclusion that Limbaugh drew. Recognizing Bush’s association with Flight 93, Limbaugh attempted to inoculate the president by predicting that only the craziest lefties would use United 93 to scapegoat him.

Throughout the spring of 2002, as the first saber rattling over invading Iraq began, Bush repeatedly cited the heroic sacrifice of the Flight 93 passengers. “They realized that the hijacked plane they were on was going to be used to kill. And they decided to serve something greater than themselves. In this case, they served their country. They said a prayer, they told their loved ones they loved them, and they drove a plane into the ground.” Flight 93 was thus recuperated as a glorious defeat, like the Alamo or the Battle of Bataan.

But Greengrass’s interpretation of events is secular. He promotes official incompetence over conspiracy, shows hijackers and passengers addressing their God, and eschews nationalist appeals. United 93 even tends to collectivize heroism—a sore point for certain families who maintain that some passengers were more heroic than others. Even the line “Let’s roll,” first used by Bush as a rallying cry two months after 9-11, is barely heard—and may refer to the use of a serving cart as a battering ram.

United 93 suggests that, rather than patriotic self-sacrifice, the desperate passengers were motivated by self-preservation. They storm the cockpit preparing to take control and land the plane. Flight tapes indicate that the hijackers deliberately crashed the plane before the passengers could breach the cockpit. (Thus, Bush’s scenario—”they said a prayer” and “drove the plane into the ground to serve something greater than themselves”—actually more closely describes the terrorists.)

As a commercial moviemaker (rather than say, a historian), Greengrass has his primary contract with the audience. The ordeal must provide catharsis, and the one Greengrass offers is far more primal than Bush’s Flight 93 rhetoric: In the gospel according to Greengrass, the passengers not only enter the cockpit but actually appear to kill the hijackers. This thrilling finale is underscored with martial drumbeats. As master manipulator Alfred Hitchcock demonstrated in The Birds, the absence of music would have been enormously disconcerting—
let alone the unresolved non-ending Hitchcock gave his absurdist disaster film.

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In its climactic moments, United 93 demonstrates a realism that goes to the dark heart of drama itself. This new disaster film may aspire to be more than entertainment, but if it is to fill the multi-plexes, someone will have to pay.

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A Flight to Remember

In the city where it will premiere next Tuesday, United 93 is being greeted—or repelled?—almost as if it were itself some kind of terror attack. Is the movie pornography? Exploitation? Too much too soon?

Having seen it once (apparently with what the studio calls “unfinished” effects), I can attest that the film nobody wants to see is worth seeing. At the very least, United 93—as the most literal representation yet of that unimaginable morning—will hopefully ignite a meaningful debate about the ethics and politics of 9-11 commemoration.

Paul Greengrass’s approximately real-time dramatization of what took place aboard Flight 93—which left Newark for San Francisco the morning of September 11, 2001, and crashed in western Pennsylvania 81 minutes after takeoff—is best understood as a memorial. (It was famously made with the support of the passengers’ families, the press kit includes bios not of the actors but of the people they portray, and Universal is donating 10 percent of the first weekend gross to the Flight 93 memorial fund.) Like most memorials, it is respectful, premised on competing obligations to the dead and the living, and eager to stress that the deaths were not in vain. It not only tells us we should never forget but also illustrates how we should remember.

As written and directed by Greengrass, the ex–BBC documentarian who already has one skillful re-creation of a historical atrocity under his belt (Bloody Sunday, about 1972’s Derry massacre), United 93 is at once scrupulous and ghoulish, visceral and sober. Except for a few crucial deviations from the 9/11 Commission Report and the black-box tapes played at the Moussaoui trial, most of the narrative’s conjectures are circumspect. There is not a conspiracy theory in sight.

United 93 may be unrelenting, but for almost its entire duration, it depends on a grim foreknowledge that is the opposite of suspense. Greengrass, as he demonstrated in Bloody Sunday, has a talent for hectic naturalism and panoramic context—the cross talk and propulsive intercutting add up to a lucid big picture. Title notwithstanding, United 93 does not confine itself to the doomed airliner. Fully half of the film transpires in various control centers (in Boston, New York, Cleveland, etc.), as well as at the FAA’s command center in Herndon, Virginia, and the Northeast Air Defense Sector base in Rome, New York. Some of the tensest moments involve bewildered air traffic officers staring at green screens, struggling to decipher ominous radio transmissions and vanishing radar blips. (Ben Sliney, who was on his first day as the FAA’s operations manager, plays himself.)

United 93‘s general discretion and lack of inflection is an acknowledgment of the day’s outsize drama. Even the uprising’s presidentially coopted battle cry is de-emphasized, folded into a sotto voce murmur: Let’s roll come on let’s go already. (As has now been widely reported, the phrase captured on the cockpit voice recorder is “Roll it.”) But the low-key tone is also meant to signal a moral seriousness. A&E’s recent TV movie Flight 93, weepily eavesdropping on one Final Call after another, indulged in morbid voyeurism. Greengrass, who may yet emerge as the Maya Lin of cine-memorialists, knows that restraint is both tasteful and authoritative.

And United 93‘s claim to authority is precisely its biggest problem. Greengrass has been grandiose in his public statements: The film aims to arrive at “a believable truth” and may even reveal “the DNA of our times.” Its quasi-vérité suggests an implicit fidelity, when what’s in operation is at best imaginative empathy and at worst arrogance, an obviously untenable assertion that this is how it happened.

The temptation to fix on a definitive narrative of Flight 93 is obvious. The most dramatic 9-11 subplot to have wholly escaped the reach of news cameras, this unseen event exerted an immediate stranglehold on the national imagination. As was quickly apparent, not least to the president’s speechwriters, Flight 93 was an eminently marketable legend. The initial myth—which persisted until investigators discounted it nearly two years later—held that the passengers had improvised a kamikaze response to their hijackers’ suicide mission; the “citizen soldiers,” as Tom Ridge eulogized them, crashed the plane in a bid to defend the Capitol or the White House.

Greengrass’s account splits the difference between this rah-rah version and the more tempered findings of the 9-11 Commission. His point is broadly similar to that of literary critic and plane crash expert Elaine Scarry, who in the 2002 Boston Review article “Citizenship in Emergency” juxtaposed the successful revolt aboard Flight 93—which, whether or not the passengers breached the cockpit, almost certainly contributed to its crash—with the Pentagon’s failure to defend itself and the nation.

United 93, in providing a coherent and vividly edited macro timeline of the day’s hijackings and crashes, is a uniquely damning description of the chain-of-command failures and communication breakdowns that characterized the official response to the terrorist attacks. The film suggests that if the FAA, the military, and the airlines had been talking to each other that morning, Flight 93 need never have left the Newark tarmac. When it took off at 8:42, at least one hijacking was already well under way (American Flight 11 hit the north tower at 8:46). Twenty minutes earlier, the Boston control center had received the first suspicious transmission from the first hijacked aircraft: “We have some planes.” (United 93 dispels the most popular conspiracy theory by pointing to incompetence—the plane wasn’t shot down because the government was too stunned and unprepared to have done any such thing.)

But the mandate is to make a film about heroism, and Greengrass fulfills this brief with some complexity. The emergence of the revolt—implausibly stilted in the A&E movie and even in Scarry’s analysis, where the passengers are likened to “a small legislative assembly”—is in United 93 spontaneous and panicked. Greengrass and his cast of unknowns never flinch from the sheer terror of the situation. It may be the film’s most compassionate gesture—its single most humanizing touch—to indicate that the heroes of Flight 93 were motivated not by patriotism, as it may be comforting for some to think, but by unthinkable fear and a primal survival instinct.

Perhaps mindful of his target audience, Greengrass makes sure to dangle some red-state red meat. In the blurry rebellion that is United 93‘s raison d’être—a spoiler follows—the passengers appear to kill two of the terrorists. It’s the most problematic of the movie’s unverifiable events, and one might say its biggest concession to popular taste. In dramatic terms, it’s the only instant of catharsis. This act of self-defense may have happened, and the filmmakers are entitled to wish it did. But United 93 slips into propaganda with a concluding title card that declares, “America’s war on terror had begun.” Whatever Greengrass’s intentions, his film’s closing moments essentially memorialize 9-11 Bush style, as an occasion for revenge. Painful as this movie is, it’s even more excruciating to imagine how it might play in some of the country’s multiplexes.


Update: United‘s State

As noted above, this review of United 93 was based on an unfinished print. Since then, Universal has excised the concluding title card, which read, “America’s war on terror had begun.” The final caption now reads: “Dedicated to the memory of all those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.”