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United 93

United 93 dredged my anger and hate about September 11, the silt of my soul that is never far below the surface.

I wasn’t sure whether I should see the movie. Some of you who have come to this page more recently and find mostly blathering about media may not know that I started this blog after September 11, because I was there. It’s personal for every one of us. For me, the memories and emotions are inseparable. Before I went into the theater, I even made sure to take my heart pill, because fear triggers my arrhythmia. I really wasn’t sure I could take it.

The planes hitting their targets one more time hit me as those scenes always do, except these images usually are not part of a drama; they are the drama. The sound and sight of the people on this plane calling home to tell their families goodbye was so sad and so close to home it was about unbearable; as I’ve told you before, since September 11, my children still no longer let me leave the home without saying that they love me and hearing me say it to them.

But the movie starts and ends not with the victims but with the criminals who committed these murders, praying to a God who surely must disown them or there is no God. They are the objects of my anger and hate.

The meme running through many of the reviews of United 93 is that it is carefully made, but the critics wonder why it was made. Let Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek speak for most of the critics (and more eloquently than many of them):

I’ve never had a more excruciating moviegoing experience in my life, and as brilliantly crafted — and as adamantly unexploitive — as the picture is, it still leaves you wondering why it was made in the first place….

But I went into “United 93” with a feeling of dread, and ultimately, I’m not sure Greengrass did much more than pluck at that dread with dogged, if scrupulous, persistence. I walked out of “United 93” feeling bereft and despondent; my stomach muscles had tensed into a seemingly immovable knot. But the picture didn’t make me feel anything I hadn’t fully expected to feel.

Yes. The movie is meticulously and masterfully made. The performances — including especially those from the people in the FAA and military control rooms who play themselves — are incredible. The entire effort is restrained, respectable, and respectful. It tries hard not to tell you what to feel because it doesn’t have to. And I can’t tell you whether you should go because only you know whether you could or should bear it. Nor can I tell you why director and writer Paul Greengrass made this film.

All I can tell you is my reaction, beyond that dread and sorrow and admiration for the heroism and humanity of the victims. I felt the anger and hate again. This is a movie about a crime, a mass murder, a Godless sin.

But not according to The New York Times. In a parody of Times reviews, Manohla Dargis — who also doesn’t know why the film was made — finds, or rather injects, a political agenda:

“United 93” is a sober reminder of the breakdown in leadership on the morning of Sept. 11. Unlike Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the film doesn’t get into the whereabouts of the president that day, or why Osama bin Laden ordered the attack; its focus is purposely narrow. But that narrow focus, along with the lack of fully realized characters, and the absence of any historical or political context, raises the question of why, notwithstanding the usual (if shaky) commercial imperative, this particular movie was made. To jolt us out of complacency? Remind us of those who died? Unite us, as even the film’s title seems to urge? Entertain us?

To be honest, I haven’t a clue. I didn’t need a studio movie to remind me of the humanity of the thousands who were murdered that day or the thousands who have died in the wars waged in their name.

No, I don’t think it is a “sober reminder of the breakdown in leadership.” I think it is quite clearly a sobering reminder of a crime perpetrated against thousands of innocent people by deluded fanatics.

And so perhaps we do need that reminder.

As I went into the theater to buy my ticket, I heard two young women talking about what to see.

“United 93,” said one, “that’s the one about the terrorists who take over the jet.”

Her friend replies, “You know I don’t like action pictures.”

“It’s not really scary,” says the first.

It’s just another thriller to them, about a story apparently forgotten.

Yes, perhaps we need to be reminded of the anger and the hate. We need to be reminded to be scared.

Edward R. Murrow: God or not?

Here are my probably contrarian views of Good Night, and Good Luck, the beautifully made movie about Edward R. Murrow’s confrontation with Sen. Joseph McCarthy:

As courageous and laudable as Murrow’s stand against American tyranny was – and it was – I also wonder whether it helped lead to the downfall of Dan Rather, the downsizing of CBS News, and perhaps even the decline of mainstream journalism itself.

For Murrow’s triumph led to a half-century-long era of haughtiness, self-importance, and separation from the public in the news. That may not be his responsibility – though he is shown at the start and end of the film dismissing the decadence, escapism, distraction, and amusement of television and America’s mass tastes (either out of snobbery or more likely out of shame, since he, too, catered to them on his own celebrity slather show). His disciples came to believe that the wattage of their broadcast towers entitled them to equivalent power in society. They thought they were no longer hacks looking out for the common man – as common men themselves – but instead the saviors of society (and rich ones at that). They were the ones who dubbed themselves the Tiffany Network. They thought they could do no wrong.

And then along came Dan.

Ain’t Edward R. spinning in is grave now?

These founding fathers of TV news could convince themselves of their invincibility because they came into journalism just as television itself destroyed competition in local newspapers and established an age of monopoly news, of one-size-fits-all mass media, of fewer voices and less diversity of views. And so CBS News pulled the rest of TV – and print journalism, too – up on a pedestal, above it all. The age of the oracles began, an age that – thanks to the internet – is just now ending, as declared by no one less than the current president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward.

Isn’t that ironic: The most mass medium in history gave birth to a class of media snobs. And the until-recently-exclusive medium (for the technologically sophisticated at the start) cuts them down to earth and once again empowers the little guy.

It’s equally ironic that after Murrow, we also came to find ourselves wrapped in an ethic of objectivity in news. Murrow was hardly objective, not in his finest moment. He was highly opinionated. He was on a crusade, God bless him. Yet soon after his triumph, we came to believe that objectivity was the highest virtue of journalism and of journalism school.

I’ve long ascribed that idolotry of the objective to our one-size-fits-all marketplace of media, from the mid-’50s to the mid-’80s (when the remote control reached 50 percent penetration in America) and beyond: If you had to be everything to everyone, you tried to offend no one and serve no side over another. It kind of made sense, given the circumstances.

But in the film, I think I got a glimpse of another root of the objectivity era. Murrow’s CBS News colleague and friend, Don Hollenbeck, was himself under whisper attack by the blacklisters and a dark, conservative Hearstian columnist: a proto’reilly. He committed suicide under the pressure.

And then they started talking about how the news was or was not slanted. The critics accused the journalists of slanting and the journalists denied it – the self-same journalists who had just slanted bravely against McCarthy and his fellow travelers. It struck me as a certain sort of pandering to the pressure: Instead of proudly standing up and saying, you bet we’re biased in favor of that little guy and against the tyranny of power, they cowered and said, ain’t no slanters here, just us chickens.

As much as I celebrate the exploding of media monopoly via the internet, Good Night did make me wonder whether we might end up longing for the power of the huge platform, for that power allowed Murrow to stand up to McCarthy and survive and help put the nation back on its democratic course. Well, he didn’t do it alone. But the power of major, mainstream, mondo, monopoly media helped, didn’t it?

In our new, distributed world, we have to re-aggregate ourselves into a powerful chorus of voices. We don’t have Cronkite finally disapproving of the Vietnam war. We have Porkbusters instead.

I don’t think I’ll miss the overpowering platform. But I wonder.

Another thing the monopolization of media did was insulate journalism from the pressures – and wisdom – of the marketplace.

That, I think, has proven to be every bit as damaging as the haughtiness. And this may, indeed, be Murrow’s fault. For we hear him lecturing CBS founder Bill Paley that news should not be subject to business realities.

We hear that same refrain today when reporters whine about cuts in the newsroom even as newspapers suffer the loss of audience – who no longer like or need their product – and of classified, retain, and circulation revenue, which have fled to better marketplaces elsewhere. If newsrooms had been more attuned to their marketplaces – not prostituting themselves, just listening and serving – they may have tried to update news and not leave it as it was that half-century ago.

If we take the atmosphere of the film as accurate, it’s striking how much the nation has changed, how much fear has stopped dominating public life. The reporters and the people were afraid not just of McCarthy but of government: of senators and the FBI and the military. And the people also feared the reporters: Murrow and company anxiously awaited the criticism coming out in the papers’ first editions; Hollenbeck killed because of the power of the press.

Today, we ridicule government and dismiss the power of the press. We have come a long way, baby.

And though the movie tries to draw parallels with today – “We cannot defend freedom abroad by abandoning it at home,” Murrow preaches to ironic (Iraqi) cackles in the New York screening room – it’s hard to paint red-baiting and terrorist-hunting with the same brush. For many reasons – some ethnic, some religious, some politically correct – we’re not likely to fear our neighbors wondering whether we are now or have ever been a member of al Qaeda or an Islamic fundamentalist fascist.

It so happens that I ran into my friend Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media, and dragged him along to the screening (yes, they’re inviting bloggers to screenings) of Good Night.

The dramatic parallels are just too beautiful to pass up: I was watching the invention of one electronic medium as we live through the invention of the next. Nick had just finished saying that a reporter who wrote an article on the phenom he denies founding missed the real angle of the story, namely: “We don’t give a fuck.” And then I saw on the screen the genesis of journalistic haughtiness, which was very much about giving a fuck. I complimented Nick on the barbed and blunt coverage, of sorts, given Bush’s latest Supreme Court nomination by Wonkette: hardly fearless, just fearsomely snarky. And then I saw the journalists on screen refuse to cower under government’s power.

Yes, you could cut the irony – just like the smoke on the screen – with a knife.

This isn’t a movie review but if it were, I’d tell you to see Good Night, and Good Luck. I’d blurb it. This is a compelling story of courage and a brilliantly produced period piece that portrays its heroes with both admiration and wit. And though there are a few grandstanding speeches, there could have been more. David Strathairn as Murrow is remarkable and so is Clooney as the film’s producer. My grade: B+