On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was worrying about my mother, who was still recovering from a near-fatal bout of pneumonia. Distracted when I entered the lobby of the National Press Building, where I work, I was startled to see five of the lobby's eight TV monitors showing a jet airplane hanging out the smoldering side of the World Trade Center.
"What a horrible accident," I thought as I headed toward the elevators. In the time it took to reach my office, the second plane hit, dispelling forever any thought of an accident. Twenty minutes later a friend called, advising me to leave immediately: a third plane had just struck the Pentagon, where I had left my bus for the subway station just an hour before, and a fourth reportedly was headed for either the Capitol or the White House, both just blocks from my building.
That's enough of my personal 9/11 reminiscences. I only wanted to show that, first, I was as blindsided by the catastrophe as everybody else, and, second, if United Flight 93 had reached the terrorists' destination, I might not be sitting here writing this now, and certainly the lives of a lot of people I care about would either have been ended or ruined.
This is why I have trouble judging Paul Greengrass' United 93 as a work of art. However, the film feels like the absolute and unvarnished truth, at least as far as anyone can know it, so I guess that by saying so I am paying the ultimate tribute to Greengrass' art.
I have never seen Bloody Sunday, Greengrass' film about the 1972 Belfast uprising, and his Bourne Supremacy, starring Matt Damon, was a stylish, hyperkinetic summer potboiler. United 93, in contrast with the Damon film, starts slowly, though using the same jittery camera technique. The film starts with the terrorists, all looking as if they should be MBA students, praying for a successful slaughter. It then switches to what would be the last innocent day in any American airport, as the crew of Flight 93 prepares the airplane and the passengers arrive. The very slowness of this early section builds the tension and poignancy unbearably. The pilot discussing his anniversary plans, the flight attendants talking about their kids, the elderly passenger who asks for a glass of water to take her pills, the guy who rushes to catch the plane and makes it just as the door is about to close: how quickly, and irrevocably, those sweet daily occurrences would become tragic ironies.
From there, the film rushes into history: the terrorists strike; the passengers cower, then rally; the air traffic controllers watch the carnage in horror, wondering how it could happen, and why. Greengrass increases the film's verisimilitude by having some of the actual controllers and Federal Aviation Administration officials play themselves, including Ben Sliney, FAA national operations manager. Who better at portraying the horror of that day than those who actually lived it?
When the passengers finally turn on the terrorists, there's no uplifting music, no lingering on the heroes' triumphant faces. There's just the sudden attack, the struggle for the controls, the plane's helpless plummet to the earth. At no time does Greengrass let us forget that these were people with no outside help, no special training and next to no hope of survival, who relied solely on their own courage and instincts. It helps enormously that virtually all the actors are unknowns; the only names I recognized in the cast list were David Rasche, star of the TV series Sledge Hammer, and former Saturday Night Live regular Denny Dillon. These weren't superstars or superheroes who saved their countrymen on September 11; these were ordinary people, like you and me.
Only one thing about United 93 felt like a cheap trick to me: the presence of a European passenger who argues against all evidence that the terrorists can be reasoned with, and who tries to warn the terrorists of the pending attack. Otherwise, the film is ennobling. I will always cherish the memory of the passengers of United Flight 93, who—at the sacrifice of their own lives—spared my city and my friends from unimaginable destruction and suffering. Paul Greengrass has paid them just tribute.
As horrible as 9/11 was, worse things have happened in the world. The fighters of the French Resistance during World War II struggled for years, virtually without help, against a tyrannical invading force, with no likely outcome for their efforts except prolonged torture and anonymous death. To know their story is to know the horrors of that war in microcosm. The director Jean-Pierre Melville was one of the Resistance's lucky survivors, and in 1969 he paid tribute to his fallen comrades by making L'Armee des Ombres (Army of Shadows).
Army of Shadows is the first Melville film I've seen (Le Samourai and Bob le Flambeur are probably his best-known films in America), but I understand it is typical of his work. Based on a novel by another Resistance fighter, Joseph Kessel (who also wrote Belle de Jour),Army of Shadows depicts men and women trapped in a gray netherworld where danger, fear and loneliness are the only realities. (It is no accident that Melville sets the film between late October 1942 and late February 1943; Pierre Lhomme's camera work is a mournful study of drab buildings, barren fields, and rain.)
The Resistance fighters of Army of Shadows are certainly not ordinary, but they're not the sort of people the movies glorify as heroes. Engineers, mathematicians, housewives, they scuttle from safe house to safe house, planning whatever action they can against the German oppressors, but forced mostly to concentrate on simply staying alive. They must be ready at any moment to do whatever is necessary—drive a knife into a Nazi soldier's ribs, parachute from an airplane during aerial bombardment, or garrote an informer with a towel. They keep their involvement in the Resistance so secret that not even the brothers Luc (Paul Meurisse) and Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel) know of the other's deep commitment to the struggle. All identity must be erased, all family ties denied, and those who betray the cause in any way, no matter what services they rendered in the past, must be eliminated—no trial and no appeals. Anything at all that gives away your identity--even the photograph of a beloved child in your wallet--can lead to your death warrant, from either friend or foe.
The story of Army of Shadows is episodic, deliberately eschewing any flashy heroics, yet it contains scenes far more tension-inducing than any Fall Down Go Boom movie I can remember. Again, this isn't Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford performing these deeds: these are people like you and me, finding themselves in situations unthinkable only a few years before. The Vichy government is as much their enemy as the Nazis, and crimes as simple as eating black-market meat are punishable by firing squad. (The Nazis, ever artful, invent a game: they allow the condemned to run from the bullets toward the far wall. Those who make it are allowed to live until the next scheduled execution date.) Melville never lets us forget what it costs the Resistance fighters to oppose an evil regime, when millions of others were content to just go along. Twice we see captured fighters strapped into chairs for interrogation. One jump cut later, we see them slumped in the same chairs, their faces beaten into hamburger, their scarred sightless eyes bulging from their sockets. In one sequence, one of the fighters pretends to chicken out of a mission to rescue a comrade captured by the Gestapo. I won't describe his true plan of action, except to say it is one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever seen on the screen. Greater love hath no man, indeed.)
Anchoring the film is Lino Ventura as Gerbier, who is more or less the second-in-command in the Resistance cell we follow. A stocky, blunt-looking man with a broken nose (Ventura was a champion wrestler before he became an actor), Ventura has been compared often with another great actor in French films, Jean Gabin. Gabin was somewhat reminiscent of Spencer Tracy, and Ventura is even more so; he has that same solidity and strength, that same lack of artifice coupled with subtly nuanced emotion. For the first twenty minutes or so of the film, we see Gerbier as a prisoner in a Vichy camp, quietly biding his time. When he finally leaps into action, it's a shock, but really not much of a surprise; there is enough of the caged lion about him to tip us off.
One of Ventura's best scenes—and the movie's—is one of its quietest. In London to receive a medal from General De Gaulle, Gerbier escapes a sudden air raid by ducking into a soldiers' canteen. He lingers there several minutes, staring in wonder at the young men and women in uniform, chatting and dancing to swing records even as the bombs cause plaster dust to shower from the ceiling. Such calm optimism, Ventura and Melville make plain, became impossible in France the minute the first Nazi soldier goose-stepped down the Champs Elysees.
Meurisse and Cassel equal Ventura in the quiet power of their performances, as does the great Simone Signoret as Mathilde--the only woman in the cell and, in the end, its most tragic member.
Mathilde is equal in resourcefulness and daring to any of the other fighters; yet, unable to separate her feelings as a patriot from her feelings as a woman and mother, she becomes an inevitable hostage to fate.
Released into a France under the sway of radical intellectuals, Army of Shadows was denounced as Gaullist propaganda and flopped at the box office. A U.S. release was never even considered. Now, 37 years later, restored under the direction of Pierre Lhomme, Army of Shadows can now be seen by American audiences as the mournful masterpiece it is. Along with United 93, it will remain a moving cinematic tribute to the courage of everyday people faced with situations that demand the ultimate sacrifice, and who rise to those occasions.