Saturday, April 29, 2006

The (inevitable) politicization of "United 93"

United 93, which I saw yesterday, is a chillingly effective film, a real-time, real-world version of the TV show 24, except this time there is no Jack Bauer to take down the terrorists and pilot the plane to safety.

But I haven't reviewed a film since I took a stab at a Sam Peckinpaugh western back in 1973, so I won't start now. Rather, my focus is on the inevitable political debate about the film -- specifically, the attempts by conservatives to employ the film for their own ideological purposes, to use the film as a rhetorical weapon that can be aimed at (a) those who oppose President Bush, (b) those who have soured on the war in Iraq, or (c) liberals, elites, or "the media" in general.

It's probably inevitable that this is already happening, given our polarized climate. And the film itself is ripe for activist exploitation, because it has no political context of its own. It has no "agenda." It is a vivid rendering of what happened, with no speculations about why. As a result, people with an agenda are well positioned to spin the film their way.

Consider these random comments, just over the past few days:

1. A popular conservative website,, believes that United 93 will make it "cool" to like Bush again, because the film will remind people that radical Islam is the enemy and that Bush has been fighting this enemy:
"Admit it, you're scared that the dirty, unwashed masses are going to get brainwashed into restoring a Democrat majority and locking the conservatives in a cellar for fifty years. Scary prospect, I know. But, I'm here to let you know it is totally unfounded....Hating Bush has become mainstream (but) I'm predicting that very soon the backlash will begin. It might be a movie star that starts it...
"There is a rapidly rising tide of anti-'radical Islam' that will soon sweep over mainstream media. People are getting real sick and tired of being told that terrorists are people, too. The movie United 93 is going to set off a fresh new debate about this among the general populace."

2. Commentator Rich Lowry, writing on the conservative National Review website, argues that United 93 is needed right now, as a morale booster: "We could be losing a major battle in the War on Terror in Iraq and seeing a flagging of resolve in the war generally." And he says that those Americans who are too squeamish to see the movie apparently also believe that "it's never too early to be defeated..."

3. Rush Limbaugh says that "liberalville" doesn't want to see this movie because "the left is not through trashing Bush and his culpability and his responsibility for 9/11." Liberals don't want to see the movie, he says, because "the movie doesn't blame Bush. The movie doesn't blame the United States government."

4. Religious right leader Gary Bauer emailed his supporters to say that "America's cultural elites are doing their best to 'pan' the film before the curtain goes up. They would prefer it if you stayed home and watched Brokeback Mountain on DVD instead. Don't listen to them - go and remind yourself of what happened on Sept. 11 and why it matters...At a time when some Washington politicians are still confused about that, this movie is a great reminder."

5. On the redstate website, someone posted a comment warning that "if the left tries to vilify this movie too much, it might bring out the same crowds who flocked to The Passion of the Christ."

6. On the conservative website, one of the commenters says that liberals don 't want people to see the new movie because "liberals are offended by the remembrance of 9/11."

Well, let's quickly unpack some of those remarks. It would seem that the conservatives believe, or want to believe, that there is a burgeoning liberal war being waged against this movie, just like there's a war on Christmas.

Frankly, I don't see it. Bauer talks about "cultural elites" panning the movie, yet I pick up Friday's New York Times, the beating heart of the so-called cultural elite, and I find a rave review of the movie. My own newspaper, in blue-state Philadelphia, just gave the film its highest rating. I also seem to recall that the best book about that flight, Among the Heroes, was written by Jere Longman of the New York Times.
Meanwhile, at last check, I still haven't heard any "Washington politicians" dismissing the importance of 9/11. Although I have read that a North Carolina Republican congressman has been opposing federal funding for a United 93 memorial.

And contrary to Lowry's argument, it somehow seems possible that many Americans are fully capable of seeing this movie, recognizing the lethal threat of terrorism -- yet still believing that Iraq has been the wrong place to fight the war. That would include many of the people who live in Rush's "liberalville." I would bet that some of the people who died on that plane had voted Democratic in previous presidential races.

On precisely this point, today I found a posting from a resident of liberalville. He was airing his views on yet another conservative blog. He wrote:

"My wife and I are going to see United 93. I think it's a 'must see' film....What's puzzling me is why anyone thinks liberals do not or would not admire and respect the passengers and crew for their courage. I'd like to think that many, even most, Americans, in similar circumstances, would at least attempt to re-take control of the plane or would do what they could to stop the terrorists.
"Who are the liberals who ridicule or criticize the people on United 93? Have any of you conservatives found examples? Or are you making a purely ideological argument that goes like this: there are liberals who disagree with either the decision to attack Iraq or the conduct of the war--and such people are (supposedly) logically compelled to mock or despise the heroic actions of the Americans on the plane.
"Speaking for myself, I am both a liberal and an admirer of valor when I see it. To suggest that there is a contradiction here is to commit oneself to a vicious dogmatism that exploits the attack on America for a partisan cheap shot."

The urge to politicize art is strong in our culture today. But an argument can be made that there are times when drama works best in the absence of an imposed agenda, and without interference from those who would seek to claim the work for their cause.

There is a poignant moment in United 93, for example, that should be allowed to stand on its own. As the end draws near on the doomed plane, the film cross cuts between the terrorists and passengers, praying quietly and desperately to their respective Gods. The moment plays as a profoundly human tragedy that traverses all ideological boundaries. Just like the film itself.