- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

Following are “United 93” director Paul Greengrass’ rules for making a September 11 movie: • Make it small. Try as much as possible not to open yourself up to charges of commercial exploitation. Work cheaply, without cutting corners.

• Stay focused. A working draft of the “United 93” script included a scene set in Afghanistan in which al Qaeda bigwig Khalid Sheikh Mohammed pitches Osama bin Laden on the idea of hijacking civilian airliners and flying them into important buildings. But everyone knows the thing was planned, Mr. Greengrass figured. Move on to what’s vital to the story.

• Consult widely. Seek out military and airline industry experts. For reasons of simple decency, obtain the approval of the victims’ families. Involve everyone in the creative process.

• No movie stars. This is particularly important: September 11 on the ground is the story of everyday men and women. The sight of, say, Tom Cruise storming the cockpit doors and saving the day would be, to say the least, highly inappropriate.

Mr. Greengrass abided by all these rules, and yet when the trailer for “United 93” first hit New York City theaters earlier this month, some moviegoers complained of feeling ambushed.

Opening in area theaters today, the extraordinarily chilling and moving “United 93” — the story of the brave passenger revolt that brought down a hijacked, Washington-bound plane into the Pennsylvania countryside on September 11 — is the first major studio movie to deal directly with September 11. Others, including Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” due in August, are set to follow.

Being first out of the gate, Mr. Greengrass and Universal Studios knew all along they’d have to face the question.

Is it too soon?

“I say it’s high time,” says Mr. Greengrass, the 51-year-old British director, during a recent interview. “The consequences of this event are profound.”

With long, gray hair and round eyeglasses, he’s every bit the filmmaker-intellectual. He speaks in measured tones, glancing aside to find answers. There are long pauses as he mentally compiles a laundry list of world-historical reverberations.

“Everything that’s happening today in our world — the war in Iraq; the war on terror; issues of civil liberties; the relationship between Europe and America; the relationship between America and the wider world; the political conditions inside Iraq — wherever you look, the great issues of our time, and whatever you think about those issues, go back to those two hours.”

Mr. Greengrass has worked widely in British television. He’s best known to American audiences for helming 2004’s “The Bourne Supremacy,” the successful sequel to Matt Damon’s spy thriller “The Bourne Identity.”

But it’s his experience with movies about political violence that, he says, qualified him to take on a slice of September 11.

Most recently there was 2002’s “Bloody Sunday,” an intensely naturalistic re-enactment of British paratroopers’ killing of 13 protesters in Northern Ireland in 1972. There also was “Resurrected” (1989), about the United Kingdom’s conflict with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982.

“Lots of people will make lots of films about 9/11,” he says. Given his background, Mr. Greengrass couldn’t resist the chance of being one of the first. September 11, he explains, is “the most important event that’s ever occurred in my life.”

Still, there’s the tricky question of whether the entertainment industry can harvest anything meaningful from such recent, and well-documented, history.

What can Paul Greengrass and Oliver Stone capture onscreen that we didn’t see with our own eyes; tell us that we didn’t already read in the “9/11 Commission Report”; explain to us in a way that doesn’t seem trivial, crass, even obscene?

I’m on record in this space calling for Hollywood filmmakers to confront the events of September 11 as well as the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr. Greengrass, it seems, has the same sense: that history is moving at a rapid clip and that filmmakers are as flat-footed as the civilian and military airspace authorities who, like a sleeping technological giant, took so long to rouse themselves as planes disappeared from radar screens.

Says the director: “This great debate that we’re having — and it’s passionate and angry debate where the stakes are high — has been going on in your newspaper, in every newspaper, every television station, every bookstore, radio station, Internet outlet and magazine store in the world.”

What with all this media chatter, this endless outpouring of skepticism and recrimination, why should — how could — Hollywood keep quiet?

Inevitably, political considerations creep into this debate.

Mr. Greengrass is, best I can tell, a fairly conventional liberal-internationalist. He fears the war in Iraq has inflamed young male fanatics across the Muslim world and made the problem of terrorism worse than it was before September 11.

He says, “One of the hardest questions we have to face — and it’s a question that Britain had to face in Ireland, and it was a very painful one — is, ‘Is what we’re doing what they want us to do?’ That’s what asymmetrical warfare is all about: hitting us hard and goading us to do things that then make it worse.”

And yet he’s equally certain that, although any action is fraught with risk, pacifism is suicidal. “One of the things I think the story of this film shows is that doing nothing is not an option,” he says.

“We do nothing, we die.”

This is where the art can help. Movies may not directly save lives, but they might inspire average moviegoers and, if done right, possibly enlighten decision makers.

“Surely, if we are going to make informed choices going forward,” says Mr. Greengrass, “we’ve gotta be prepared to look at that event and learn from it and seek wisdom from it.”

The director knew the bar to justifying “United 93” would be high. He remembers in particular feeling history’s gravity last October, when he was in the District to consult with FBI agents who had conducted September 11-related investigations.

“I remember walking outside the Capitol building and thinking, ‘If those ordinary men and women had not done what they did …’ You could see that plane in your mind’s eye,” he says.

Indeed.

Happily, I can report that “United 93” gets it right.

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