Film Louvre Treasures: United 93 Review

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Summary: . The final moments of the film are very tough to stomach, and it’s possibly one of the most brilliant endings I’ve seen in films. I shed man tears.

Rating: AAA / 100%

Director: Paul Greengrass

Cast: Khalid AbdallaChristian ClemensonCheyenne Jackson, J.J. Johnson, Sarmed al-Samarrai,
David Alan Basche

Journalist turned director Paul Greengrass, best known among fans for his Bourne trilogy, has been repeatedly accused of overusing jump cuts and shaky effects on handheld cameras, his beloved device for shooting both high-voltage action and drama sequences. Bourne Supremacy would cut every 1.9 seconds, while Bourne Ultimatum, the final installment featuring Matt Damon, wouldn’t hold continuity beyond 2 seconds on an average. Mr. Greengrass also loved to shape up his things with ‘squinty’ zooms (he focuses on the person speaking and then zooms in immediately as if the camera is pricking its ears to listen along) and unsteady motion that perhaps broke a hefty amount of traditional continuity rules – film classicists were not amused. After Damon bid goodbye to Bourne post Ultimatum, Greengrass followed suit and cast the actor in his next film Green Zone, a war thriller based on the non-fiction book Imperial Life in Emerald City by journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Despite some glowing reviews (Roger finally embraced Greengrass’ style unconditionally and awarded the movie the maximum 4 stars), the film proved disappointing at the box office.

Fast-forward to 2013: Greengrass’ Captain Phillips starring two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks is performing superbly at the box office. Again, the director chooses to cover a real life event; this time, it’s the 2009 abduction of merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips by Somalian pirates. The film has been acclaimed not just for its verisimilitude and the performances but also for developing the Somalian pirates into three-dimensional characters instead of stereotypical caricatures. A lot would probably say it’s his best effort yet, and the film is top notch in staging the entire event realistically. It’s far better than the Bourne Series, but between Supremacy and Ultimatum, Greengrass made another movie called United 93, which had a good run at the box office and was a critical darling. I caught this movie on television today, and boy oh boy, its brilliant! If I were told to pick one film that defines Paul Greengrass’ contribution to cinema, my choice shall be United 93. The final moments of the film are very tough to stomach, and it’s possibly one of the most brilliant endings I’ve seen in films. I shed man tears.

The situation is grave here. It’s September 11th , 2001, a date that needs no introduction. Two flights crashed into World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon. The fourth, United 93, crashed into a field near the Diamond T. Mine in Pennsylvania near Shanksville. That didn’t go according to the terrorists’ plan – they were heading either to the White House or the Capitol Building. So how did they end up missing their target when the other three hijacking went according to plan? The entire credit goes to the courageous force comprising of thirty three passengers and seven crew members. I tear up again thinking about the final shot in the film – it’s still lingering in my mind. Those brave forty men and women knew the chances of survival were minimal. All they could do was avert a portentous disaster that could result in more deaths – they gave up their lives to save the people who would’ve been killed had the plane crashed into a building. To have this magnitude of selflessness while hoping for the better is something that makes these people heroes forever in our hearts. And Greengrass is a hero for steering clear of any false sincerity or earnestness that usually hampers films dealing in subjects of great cultural, social, political and historical significance. He shoots it straight, and gets it right. Perfect.

While Captain Phillips slowly shifted focus from Captain Phillips and the hijacking pirates to the Navy’s attempts to rescue them, United 93 covers greatly the Federal Avatiation Admistration’s unsuccessful attempts to avert the disasters for the first hour or so. There are tough decisions to be made in situations like this. National Operatives Manager has to decide whether to shut down all the airspace in the United States or not – a billion dollar matter. He is suggested to shoot down the aircraft – a matter of human lives. The radar shows flights diverting from original course and congesting the entire air traffic. The word ‘hijack’ pops up now and then, along with signals that flights are to crash. The World Trade Center goes down first, and the FFA watches in horror on large screens. Then the Pentagon goes down. There is panic. Another flight – United 93 goes off-course and shouts of help are heard in radio transmissions. Its soon realized this flight could go down anytime. While shooting these scenes, the camera seems to be as curious and involved as the actors and the spectators. Greengrass includes a number of profile shots with characters looking upset or shocked, but he isn’t a director to stop too long to ‘capture the beauty of every moment’. Instead, he surges forth with the action – stopping the camera may be a mark of falseness to him, perhaps.

Then he shifts to the passengers’ ordeal once the terrorists take over the flight, killing the pilot and co-pilot and injuring a

Director Paul Greengrass at the Bourne Ultimat...

Paul Greengrass is one of the best modern filmmakers; his work as a journalist in the past is evident in the stories he picks to film(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

passenger. Two take charge of the cockpit, while the other two keep the passengers in check. Similar to United 93, the passengers here have some advantages over the two terrorists: they can speak English, they make calls to their loved ones, and then they decide to do something. The terrorists too have their strengths: the communication between them cannot be understood by the passengers, one wields a knife while a bomb is strapped to the other, and they are in control of the cockpit. Their names are Ziad Jarrah, Ahmed al-Haznawi, Saeed al-Ghamdi and Ahmed al-Nami – Muslims. None of the passengers mention Al Queda, the terrorist organization responsible for most attacks on humanity. Greengrass wisely chooses to convey the difference in religions obliquely through utterances of ‘Allah O Akbar’ from the terrorists and ‘Jesus Christ’ from passengers. My only quibble here is that unlike Captain Phillips, United 93 doesn’t elaborate on the terrorists’ motives or their state of mind: this is perhaps deliberately done to act as a prelude to the ‘us vs. them’ mentality that soon caught up in the States. Greengrass avoids subtitles for many of their dialogues, which further helps in raising the level of tension.

He has an ensemble to help in creating a highly convincing scenario of panic and fear. This isn’t a one man show, and Greengrass allows the camera to freely move among the passengers. The actors here act as naturally as if they were sitting on a real plane. The same thing is seen in case of the headquarters of FAA, and it’s obvious Paul and his cast has worked really hard to create a feeling of documentary realism. This makes why it becomes intensely difficult for us to watch the final moments – a heartbreakingly wonderful display of fortitude, mettle and heroism, but alas, without a happy ending.

Film Louvre Treasures – Singin in the Rain

Note: In ‘Treasures’, I shall review some of the films I’ve already watched. These films have in some way or the other become a part of me and my appreciation has grown for them with every watch.

Cover of "Singin' in the Rain (Two-Disc S...

Cover via Amazon

Here, I review Singin in the Rain, a Gene Kelly, Stanley Doden Film Starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, Donald O’Connor, R.F. Simpson, Cyd Charisse.

The first time I watched Singin’ in the Rain was on television probably four years ago. I remember having called it ‘the best movie I had ever seen’. I immediately rented a DVD and watched it five times in the next two days, each time loving it all the more. I watched it with my grandmother and my nine year old cousin and they loved it too; my cousin found Gene Kelly’s dialogue ‘You reptile!’ so funny he repeats this line whenever I mention about the film. Four years have passed and I still remember the hooks of all the incredibly catchy songs. I’ve also done my service by recommending this film to anyone who may have a liking for old musicals or who is depressed in some way or the other; I wouldn’t do this usually because most musicals, old or new, have failed to blow me away the way Singin’ in the Rain has.

Finally, I got my hands on the Collector’s Edition of Singin’ in the Rain a few days ago and lent it to my cousin for some days. She saw it with her mom and said, on returning the DVD, that both enjoyed the movie immensely. This is a kind of film that can be asked to check if a person is human: a) Yes, I enjoyed Singin’ in the Rain, for confirming you belong to the human race and b) No, I didn’t enjoy Singin’ in the Rain, for sending you back to the planet you came from. So I gave this movie another watch, this time on my home-theater. Would I sing along with the same enthusiasm I had for it four years ago? I would… I would.

Even elaborate notes in my diary, which pointed the revealing mistakes I overlooked in my previous viewing, did not impact my fondness towards the film, which is so great I wanted to hug this darling film in my arms once again. Mr. Roger Ebert, while placing this film in his list of ‘Great Movies’, remarked that the ten minute spectacular Broadway Ballet sequence before the film’s climax didn’t seem to fit well with the rest of the film, but also mentioned that he knew of MGM’s trend to include a lengthy song and dance piece in their earlier musicals. I

English: Portrait of Cyd Charisse from Singin'...

Cyd Charisse from Singin’ in the Rain  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

too was about to write this sequence off when it began, yet by the end I felt Broadway Ballet was the perfect moment to represent the spirit of Singin’ in The Rain. And why would I not want this sequence when it features ethereal dance goddess Cyd Charisse who’s probably the hottest thing ever for connoisseurs of women. She represents the unattainable in Hollywood, who shuns anyone incapable of satisfying her material needs, including our hero. Yet, our hero has gotta dance no matter how bad times are. He only has to keep ‘Singin’ and Dancin’ in the Rain!’ and life will surely get better.

Another reason why Singin’ in the Rain is so highly regarded is that we learn quite a bit about Hollywood in the late twenties, when silent films began dwindling in numbers after the influx of talking pictures. From a historical perspective, we learn about the famous Chinese theatre in Hollywood which, as mentioned in the book Oxford History of World Cinema, had ‘a green bronze pagoda roof towering some ninety feet above the entrance that mimicked an oriental temple. Inside a sunburst pendant chandelier hung sixty feet above two thousand seats in a flame red auditorium with accents of jade, gold and classic antique Chinese reproductions’ (most modern multiplexes look like shanty houses in comparison). This is the place where lavish premieres were held, where entertainment reporters (since the term ‘paparazzi’ wasn’t invented until La Dolce Vita released in the sixties) waited in anticipation of celebrities who arrive one after the other in expensive cars, and where fans cheered their lungs out whenever their idols waved at them.

Cropped screenshot of Jean Hagen from the trai...

Jean Hagen as self-centered diva Lina Lamont Singin’ in the Rain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, leading silent film actors, arrive at the beginning of Singin’ in the Rain to the premier of their film ‘Royal Rascal’ at the Chinese theatre. The Hollywood reporter who interviews them wants to hear how Don and Lina became the most desirable couple, and when Don starts talking about his best pal Cosmo and tries introducing him to the audience outside, (Cosmo’s standing behind the reporter, sadly ignored), the reporter taps Cosmo’s hand as though signaling him to stay out and that she only wants Don to speak about himself and Lina. And so our Royal rascal narrates the rosiest picture of his past where ‘dignity mattered’ to him the most; of course we’re able to see he’s bluffing entirely, only to satisfy the gossip-hungry tabloids. In reality, Don and Cosmo played in cheap motels and vaudevilles, sneaked into B-grade films and remained without employment too, until Don, who’s fit as a fiddle and ready for film, got a chance to work as a stunt hero in Roscoe Dexter’s movies and was offered by R.F. Simpson, producer of Monumental pictures, to act opposite leading lady Lina Lamont. Cosmo, on the other hand, provided orchestration for Dexter’s films (in those days, an orchestra would be present at the filming, playing along with the action) and remained in Don’s shadow.

The ‘love’ between Don and Lina is also entirely fictional, as everybody on the set knows that Don hates the repugnant, bossy, vain, screechy pain-in-the butt Lina, who ‘can neither sing, neither dance, neither act. Triple trouble’ (I beg to differ. Lina did seem to act well at least in her silent films); a delusional Lina meanwhile believes Don is her man only because fan magazines suggest so. Lina’s voice is so grating she’s urged by the studio to remain silent during premieres and let Don do the talking. But with the success of talkie film Jazz Singer, both Lamont and Lockwood are compelled to learn how to talk in movies for their next talking picture Duelling Cavalier, taking diction classes which make up for some of the most hilarious sequences;  poor Lina pronounces ‘can’t stand’  as ‘caaayn’t staaynd’ every single time.

English: Gene Kelly and girls in Singin' in th...

Gene Kelly and girls in Singin’ in the Rain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our hero is smitten with small time stage actress Kathy Selden, after he lands up in her car while escaping his fans. While their first meeting doesn’t really go that well (beautiful girl Kathy disparages Don’s pictures as ‘dumb shows’, while ravishing rascal Don teases her ‘pretentious loftiness’. Later, at a party, she aims a cake at him, which misses and hits Lina right in the kisser), Don nevertheless cannot forget about her and later meets and courts her, crooning the lovely number ‘You were meant for me’. When the preview of Duelling Cavalier turns out to be a disaster, Kathy and Cosmo cheer Don up with the infectiously hummable ‘Good Morning’ and suggest him to turn Dueling Cavalier into a musical, naming it ‘Dancing Cavalier’ instead. They also decide to use Kathy’s voice for Lamont, without informing the latter that her voice will be dubbed. The problem arises when narcissistic and manipulative Lena finds out their plan and threatens to sue Simpson and take over his production unless her demands are met (which is to sign a long term contract with Seldon to use her as a dubbing artist for Lamont so that she herself would never get her chance to shine).

While a couple of recent musicals with lofty ambitions and complicated cinematography (Les Miserables) haven’t exactly done well critically, Singin’ in the Rain remains everybody’s beloved for its relatively simplistic approach to make us laugh, cry, sing and dance and love. The camera either swoops in our out and its usually dissolves which transition to the next scene, and I prefer this to the jerky movements in Les Miserables. The writers don’t hesitate in letting us know what happens behind the screens, but never let the film turn into a depressing downer, an approach most directors would choose today. There’s the fake publicity tactic, sucking up and the usual envy among actors, especially the ladies; its Zelda, a cast member who looked disgruntled in an earlier scene where Simpson singles her out for her performance, who lets Lena know that Kathy’s dubbing her. Yet the music remains cheerful, upbeat and the dancing extremely lissome; Singin’ in the Rain is above all a sexy film.

Gene Kelly dancing while singing the title son...

The Crowning Achievement is the Title Song “Singin’ in the Rain” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The best spotlight moment in the film would be the ‘Singin in the Rain’ sequence with Gene Kelly; the song is one of the most mellifluous compositions ever written. Would I keep this song as the guiding motto throughout my life? I would… I would.