Sunday, September 03, 2006

Snakes and Leaders

Woolly Days went to two movies this week that could almost be seen as companion pieces: United 93 and Snakes on a Plane.

A character in Akira Kuresawa's Rashomon says “human life is as transient as the morning dew” and in United 93 and SoaP, human life appears very transient indeed. In the real life fiction of United 93, that happened in the morning with the dew of terrorists. In the fiction of the fiction of SoaP, that happened in the night with the dew of snakes. Many died in both films, though the fiction of fiction demanded survivors. After all, no would believe anyone would sneak an army of snakes onto a plane and make them angry with pheromones to make the plane crash. Whereas everyone now knows planes are good for crashing into things.

Actually some one did believe you could sneak snakes onto a plane. The idea dates back to World War II when brown tree snakes regularly got onto Cargo planes in the Pacific. Some Hollywood scriptwriters charmed millions out of eager producers to make the film based on two sentences and just four words: “Snakes. On a Plane”. And how indeed could it go wrong. Here finally was the culmination of the meeting of two classic claustrophobic genres as horror thriller. Humans in the tightest of spaces, with no control over their destiny, are confronted with their worst phobias: the fear of crashing and CGI Snakes. The guys in painting had a field day. It was a herpetologist’s dream job; describing hundreds of snakes to graphic artists.

But United 93 has its own horrors. Here too there is double terror. The terror of knowing all this, or something like this, actually happened is combined with the slow terror of a convincing narrative. There are several narratives at work in United 93. There is the story of what might have happened on flight United 93 itself. Then there is the story of the air traffic controllers and the Armed Forces. And finally there is the central story; the tale of the Federal Aviation Administration.

President Bush's White House counsel and now Attorney-General Alberto Gonzalez made a post 9/11 speech where he justified going to war without a congressional declaration and the government's decision to imprison US citizens such as dirty bomber Jose Padilla without charging them with a crime or allowing them a lawyer. Gonzalez reminded his audience Bush needed the power to make quick decisions and Congress would take too long. He cited the example of the 9/11 decision to close down US airspace and force commercial and private planes to land or remain grounded. But The person who made that decision without needing government clearance was not George Bush but Ben Sliney. Sliney had been appointed the National Operation Manager for the FAA and September 11, 2001 was his first day in the new job.

Ben Sliney plays himself in the film. Barely minutes into his new job, he is faced with a possible hijack situation. There is a puzzling message on a tape: “we have planes”. Soon enough, aeroplanes go missing off the screen and appear seconds later on CNN. Initial report is a light plane has hit the trade centre. But it’s bigger than that. How many more are out there? There goes the second tower. There goes the Pentagon. What’s next? As it happened there was only one more. Sliney was not to know that and took the courageous decision to bring down every flight in US airspace. The film audience had been following the fourth flight since all its anonymous passengers checked in. From its delayed start time of 8am to the crash was just over two hours, perfect movie length.

The snakes on this particular plane are four men: Three Saudis and their Lebanese leader Ziad Jarrah. It was Jarrah’s responsibility to fly the plane once they overwhelmed the pilots. Jarrah's father told the Wall Street Journal one week after the attack his son always wanted to be a pilot but was discouraged by his family. Jarrah went to Germany to study and learn the language. No-one is sure how he became involved with extremism though he may have known members of the Hamburg Cell. In 1999 he and several friends (including the two world trade centre pilots Atta and al-Shehhi) decided they would fight in Chechnya against the Russians. But Bin Laden asked them instead to train in Afghanistan for a terrorist attack.

Jarrah suddenly appeared very secular. He reported his passport stolen in 2000 and got a duplicate (just as Atta and al-Shehhi did the month before) and travelled in and out of the US many times. He attended combat classes and flight schools and learned how to fly a jet. He got a speeding ticket in Maryland two days before the flight. There is debate whether his final letter is a suicide note or not. It mentions farewells but also has scuba diving instructions.

The film audience catches up with him preparing and praying on the night before. He boarded United 93 with the other three. There was also seven crew and 33 other passengers in a 182-seater Boeing 757. The aircraft was scheduled to depart at 8am, but was delayed 40 minutes due to routine heavy morning Eastern seaboard traffic. 50 minutes into the flight, Jarrah and his team took control after a minute-lomg struggle. At 9:39am, air traffic controllers overheard Jarrah saying "this is the captain. Would like you all to remain seated. There is a bomb on board, and [we] are going back to the airport, and to have our demands [unintelligible]. Please remain quiet."

There were no further transmissions. The plane changed direction and flew towards Washington. 24 minutes later the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. The film pieces evidence from the 9/11 Commission Report to suggest the passengers and crew, aware of events elsewhere through their phones, fought back and forced the plane to crash-land. The pageant is gripping but exhausting. It is played out in mostly apolitical strict cinema verite style by Paul Greengrass who did a similar job on Belfast’s Bloody Sunday.

Whereas Greengrass’s script was written for him, SoaP had a few more challenges. But it also had a few more supporters. A whole army of bloggers passed it on by word of e-mouth and they also crowdsourced plot devices, some of which were taken up by director David Ellis. The movie also had an established star; Samuel Leroy Jackson would be aboard the flight. There was something strangely comforting in this. Everyone watch the film know that sooner or later he was going to get fed up and “have it” with these muddafuggen snakes on a muddafuggen plane and do something about it. That’s been Samuel L’s style since Pulp Fiction. He even got them to change the title back after the studio started calling it “Pacific Air Flight 121”.

Unlike United 93, the passengers on Pacific Air Flight 121 had a chance with Jackson on board. Despite moments where it veered into dangerous Airport 75 territory, it is quite a funny film. It is also jumpily scary at times. Humans go to war with snakes. And it’s a very dirty war. The movie is sadistic, ruthless and graphic, deliberately turned on to achieve an R Rating in the US. A very large anaconda, rather unnecessarily thrown in for its restricting qualities among the multitude of poisonous snakes almost steals the show in its rare air time by squeezing and eating a particularly pompous Pom. As well as being the most Internet hyped film to date, SoaP is awash in product placement. There may have been some Occupational Health and Safety issues on the shoot. The film did not just rely on computerised serpents, it used 450 live snakes of 25 different species. I assume the anaconda wasn’t one of them.

Anacondas aside, United 93 and SoaP tell the same story of the transience of the morning dew. I don't want to see either any time soon in my in-flight entertainment.

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