Authenticating the Reel: Simulation and Trauma in United 93

By Fran Pheasant-Kelly.

Published by The Arts Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This paper examines the intersection between representation and reality in Paul Greengrass’s 2006 film United 93, one that traces the final steps of the fourth hijacked aeroplane during the September 2001 attacks on America.
United 93 is one of several recent films that recount the events of 9/11. Some, such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, are documentary in nature; others, including Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, marshal fragments of evidence into coherent fictionalised narratives. United 93 is different because, while it similarly attempts to reproduce real events, it is mostly devoid of the conventional devices of the Hollywood blockbuster. Taking account of cinematography, mise-en-scène, lighting, sound and narrative structure, this paper will textually analyse United 93. It will show how it deviates from the predictable patterning of much American film and will engage theoretically with concepts of the Real and the simulacrum as appropriate.
This paper will show that the film deviates from standard Hollywood narratives in several significant ways. The film fundamentally de-glamorises aspects of everyday life in an attempt to sustain authenticity. Moreover, its narrative structure is devoid of the usual order, disorder, and order restored format that often characterises classic Hollywood narratives. It does not fit easily into typical genre categories, and lacks closure in the traditional sense. Romantic interludes are absent, and it avoids obvious use of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Instead, United 93’s early foregrounding of the mundane makes its later events seem even more horrific. The depiction of the ordinary and un-spectacular aspects of people’s lives mediates particular realism. The use of actual individuals involved at the time as central characters, and the inter-cutting of documentary footage of the Twin Towers’ attacks further intensifies the film’s credibility. Cinematography, as well as mise-en-scène, breaks with the conventions of fictional film in its realist tendencies. These aspects, together with a lack of stars and a general absence of formal aesthetic devices mean that here, ‘simulation’ appears close to reality. As a result, the film sustains particularly significant emotional impact, and functions not only as a tribute to those on the flight, but also as a mode of catharsis for the spectator.

Keywords: United 93, Representation, Realism, Textual Analysis, Lacan, Baudrillard

International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 4, Issue 1, pp.95-106. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.264MB).

Dr. Fran Pheasant-Kelly

Senior Lecturer, Department of Film Studies, School of Humanities, Language and Social Science, University of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton, West Midlands, UK

I have a special interest in science and gender, representation, space, and institutions in American film. I am particularly interested in the relationship between abjection, space and subjectivity in ‘institution films’ and representations of the War on Terror in recent American film. I have contributed to collections on science fiction and recently written a chapter for a book entitled Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender (to be published July 2009).

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