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Taking a more realist tack, the grizzled spymaster offers a cold, calculating response. “Why cut fingernails,” he observes, “if they grow back?”
His point is that Israel’s war on terrorism will go on as long it has to go on.
As the scene and the film end, the camera pans away to reveal the World Trade Center in the background. The surprising piece of trick photography leaves the viewer pondering how best to fight and defeat this enemy.
In a similar way, “The Kingdom,” which is set in modern-day Saudi Arabia, at once seems to endorse and yet question the use of force to counter jihadist terrorism. After a terrorist attack on a U.S. facility in Saudi Arabia, a team of FBI agents is dispatched to investigate and avenge the attack.
The film reminds us that there can be common ground between people on opposite sides of cultural divides, that diplomacy can only go so far and that force has its place. But like “Munich,” it leaves the viewer with the helpless feeling that this war will go on for many years. The point is driven home by the film’s parallel opening and concluding scenes.
In the first scene, after the casualties are counted, the lead FBI agent whispers something to console his grieving colleague. We don’t know what he says, but whatever it is, it works. Then, at the end of the film, after a shootout claims a Saudi man, his grandson is similarly consoled by other whispered words, which, we learn are the same as what the FBI agent had said: “We’ll kill them all.”
Finally, “United 93” reminds us that America’s war on terror actually began on Flight 93, when its 40 passengers and crew mounted a heroic effort to wrest control of the doomed plane. “They were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world,” director Paul Greengrass observed after he released his documentary-style film.
“United 93” begins marching toward its crescendo by offering snapshots of modern American life. We hear fragments of conversations about vacations in Europe, business in New York, family in California. Laptop computers and cell phones serve to underscore how self-contained, detached, even myopic these unsuspecting heroes are.
By circumstance, their plane was doomed to play a part in history on September 11, 2001. But by choice, by their collective will, they would actually change history and spare their countrymen yet another bloody, psychological trauma. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, the objective of Flight 93’s hijackers was to attack “symbols of the American Republic: the Capitol or the White House.”
But before they rewrite the final chapter of that terrible Tuesday, the passengers wrestle all the emotions we came to know in the days that followed their sacrifice: confusion and disbelief, shock and anger, desperation and despair, fear and terror.
Like us, they argue about what to do and consider other options: Can we negotiate? Do they want a ransom? Can we just turn back home? They pray and cry and finally come to grips with the only option left. “We’re alone,” one of them grimly explains. “No one’s going to help us.”
As the passengers progress through their light-speed metamorphosis, Greengrass cuts back and forth to air-traffic controllers, FAA officials and military command centers, drawing us into a swirl of chaos and confusion. Veterans of combat know it as the fog of war, and it can overwhelm even the best soldiers, most powerful armies, most technologically sophisticated nations.
But the fog lifts quickly for United 93. In the span of a half-hour, they piece together the puzzle on their own—with no help from CNN—and take the fight to the enemy.
For those Americans who still stumble about in the post-9/11 fog, “United 93” points a way out.
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