Certain films transcend criticism because of the place they hold in the national consciousness. Saving Private Ryan is a forceful, indelible picture with opening and closing battle scenes so visceral I found myself ducking in the theater as a complete stranger in the seat next to me gripped my arm. Shorn of the opening Omaha beach sequence and the fight for the town of Ramell, the film is just north of pedestrian. Robert Rodat’s script is functional but hokey (the constant banter over Tom Hanks’ occupation is an example). The characters – the intellectual, the caring medic, the goombah, the Southern, bible-loving sniper, the New Yahker, the Jew – are unrealistic archetypes. The John Williams score is just so much syrup.
Who cares? The picture means more than its parts and speaks to a certain time and sacrifice. Every American high school kid should be forced to watch the damn thing the next time they bitch about the trials and tribulations of their lives.
In many ways, 9-11 was much like the day American soldiers alit from their Higgins boats onto Omaha. We were wholly unprepared for the savagery of the attack, we reeled at its success, and then brave and innovative heroes, ordinary citizens all, adapted, driving one of the planes meant to decapitate the government into a field in Shanksville, saving the lives of hundred and perhaps thousands of others. Paul Greengrass’s film depicting that day, however, suffers no flaws and accordingly, does not need to transcend criticism.
Greengrass made his mark with a style blending documentary and drama in his depiction of a 1972 Irish civil rights protest march and subsequent massacre by British troops, Bloody Sunday. As in that film, in United 93, Greengrass keeps us just over the shoulders of the military authorities, the air traffic control personnel, and the passengers of United 93 as the horror of what is occurring dawns on them, paralysis sets in, and then the process of acceptance and adaptation commences. We’re there, but we are not, and we feel thankful for both the intimacy and the remove.
The casting is brilliant. A decision was made to use actors who are familiar but who are not stars. You know you’ve seen many of these people, but they do not bring any recognizable persona, so they feel real. For the passengers on the plane, Greengrass went out of his way to cast actors who looked like the person they were playing. Moreover, he wanted people who had a tie to the project. As explained by Greengrass, “What we did on this film was to gather together an extraordinary array of people wanting to get this film right, aircrew from United Airlines, pilots, the families of the people who were onboard, who gave us a sense of what their family member might have done given the type of person he or she was in any given situation; controllers and members of the military. We had a lot of expertise that in the end allows you to get a good sense of the general shape of events.”
Finally, Greengrass at no point indulges in communicating a larger message. In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg, as always, just couldn’t trust his audience. He had to have Hanks tell Matt Damon “Earn it” even though the story was told skillfully enough to leave it unsaid. Greengrass is a neutral, not in the ideological struggle of 9-11, but in the explication of evaluating these people at this critical time. The result, for me, was a clearer vision of just how extraordinary the acts of heroism were.