- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

As another Academy Awards ceremony approaches, Hollywood hasn’t left itself with an abundance of respectable alternatives. The soundest policy as far as I can see would be to embrace “The Queen” and feel profoundly grateful that it made the finals.

I don’t plan to be watching the telecast — for the first time in 40-odd years. I decided it was an ideal juncture to take time off for good behavior. I’ve been blithely disregarding all the preliminaries as well — Golden Globes, nominations morning, etc. — and it’s proved a refreshing form of neglect.

I’m pretty sure I’d feel differently if Academy members had been more responsive to the dramatic features I esteemed above all others last year: Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” and Doug McGrath’s “Infamous.” I’d be happier to see them as best picture finalists than the terminally wretched “Babel” and “The Departed.”

Mr. Greengrass’ remarkable evocation of the shocks of September 11, 2001, culminating in the fate of the hijacked airliner that was prevented from reaching its target, was nominated in only two categories — best direction and film editing. Evidently, the long overdue Martin Scorsese and recently overrated Clint Eastwood are considered likelier winners for direction. Film editing might strike voters as the ideal consolation prize for “United 93.” In retrospect, that token would magnify Hollywood’s failure to seize a historic opportunity.

Given the prevailing mind-set of the movie colony, an imposing call to arms is personified not by “United 93” but by Al Gore as an alarmist pseudo-authority in “An Inconvenient Truth,” an absurd front-runner as best documentary feature. Be prepared for a similar testimonial next year when Jonathan Demme provides Jimmy Carter with a polemical showcase, “He Comes in Peace,” a working title that defies belief or improvement.

“United 93” enjoyed overwhelming critical acclaim and a brief theatrical prominence. “Infamous” was a non-starter. Although it proved to be far and away the superior biopic about Truman Capote at the time he was writing “In Cold Blood,” the attention span for this subject was limited to last year’s “Capote,” an Oscar-winner for Philip Seymour Hoffman. The fact that Toby Jones and Daniel Craig contributed awesome performances — and awesome teamwork — as Mr. Capote and killer Perry Smith, respectively, will be of abiding interest to movie posterity.

“United 93” has been available in a DVD edition for several months, but the lukewarm Oscar response provides an additional reason to wish it a long and honorable shelf life. It’s so unlike most movies, fictional or documentary, that it may be a groundbreaker when it comes to delayed or roundabout appreciation.

It’s my impression that many people found the idea of attending “United 93” more of an emotional ordeal than they were prepared for, especially in public. I trust they’ll be more receptive to a private encounter with subject matter this painful. The DVD edition provides another alternative: approach the movie with the aid of Paul Greengrass’ commentary track right from the beginning.

Ordinarily, I would never recommend this method. As a rule, commentary should be regarded as a supplement, best reserved for a second viewing. In this singular case, the director’s voice may be a source of emotional reassurance for reluctant viewers. It’s not as if the events are calculated for fictional surprises or payoffs. Part of Mr. Greengrass’ skill is to reawaken a disarming, present-tense illusion even when you know terrible things are going to happen.

Having the writer-director as an audible confidante seems to counteract the dire nature of the material, whether he’s emphasizing shooting methods or sharing his sense of the meaning of September 11, which he frequently and eloquently does. A patient and considerate re-enactor, especially when consulting with the families of slain crew members and passengers, Mr. Greengrass responded to this opportunity with exceptional decency as well as dramatic artistry. The result is a profoundly intense but also conscientious thriller — indeed, a thriller that redefines and surpasses the genre as conventionally understood and practiced.

In place of an ominous and violent scenario wedded to predictable twists and heroic exploits, one observes an admirably straightforward and vivid distillation of an authentic catastrophe with far-reaching, ongoing consequences. Meeting that sort of challenge would seem to constitute a prodigious feat. For some reason, perhaps sheer professional jealousy or wounded vanity, Hollywood has barely recognized its prestige value.

Mr. Greengrass is an Englishman whose range of sympathy and understanding does tend to dwarf the knee-jerk Hollywood norm. And he has filmed an American calamity with enviable brilliance and compassion. That could be enough to breed ingratitude in a culture that mistakes Michael Moore and Al Gore for seers.

Paul Greengrass has also elevated the DVD commentary. In its short history this resource has prompted some very agreeable and informative narrations: Stanley Donen and Peter Stone recalling “Charade,” John Frankenheimer recalling “The Manchurian Candidate” and “The Train,” Julian Fellowes sharing his research as the screenwriter of “Gosford Park,” Kevin Kline wittily enhancing his role in “A Prairie Home Companion.” Now there’s another possibility: making it easier to bear the depiction of an unbearable real-life experience.

TITLE: “United 93”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and graphic violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Paul Greengrass. Cinematography by Barry Ackroyd. Costume supervision by Dinah Collin. Visual effects supervision by Peter Chiang. Sound mix by Chris Munro. Music by John Powell

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

DVD EDITION: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.universalstudios.com

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