United 93: Networked Information, Uncertainty, Action

I accidentally watched United 93 the other night, the film nominally about the 9/11 hijacked plane in which the passengers re-hijacked the plane, crashing it into a field, killing everyone on board but no one else. I feared it would be some banal tale of heroism, the hero in us all emerging in times of distress. What I discovered is an incredibly complex film about information, knowledge, uncertainty, and action in the age of electronic technology.

The film is narratively strange. There are no central characters; we are not privy to any intimate relationships——no lovers for whom we will weep, no reluctant heroes waiting in the wings. Rather, the camera maintains a peculiar distance, an indifference, as it follows the flow of bodies and information.

For the most part, the film does not focus on the action on the plane: it follows the flow of information that demarcates the event. This begins, more or less, at air traffic control in various cities—Cleveland, NY, and central FAA headquarters. One air traffic controller, watching a blip on a screen and speaking into a headset, gets no response from a plane. Soon, that plane—or rather, that blip—is not following its prescribed trajectory. Soon thereafter there is some mysterious sound from the errant plane's cockpit, a foreign accent, muffled words. No one is quite what's happening; tapes of the exchange are played back repeatedly in an attempt to decipher the voices.

This is how information works in a tele-electronic network: a blip on the screen in Cleveland disappears over NY where air traffic controller search their monitors and then grab binoculars to search the sky. Meanwhile, a feedback loop plays, "We have planes." There is no one person to make sense of the information, to declare, "This is what's happening." Instead, there's a series of phone calls, relays, between different individuals at different air traffic control centers, an office in the Pentagon, and rumors of phone calls from passengers on one of the planes. It's one big insane game of telephone, only there's no original message to distort: there's distortion from the get go.

The scene on the plane mimics the scene on the ground. No one passenger knows what's happening; no one passenger rallies the troops. Everyone pipes in to whomever is next to them; rumors spread; a local zone of activity emerges, based on the premise that the terrorists' bomb is not real. BUT NO ONE KNOWS.

What's impressive about the film is that it passes no judgement. There is no implicit condemnation of those who can't figure out what's happening—EVEN AFTER ONE OF THE TOWERS IS ON FIRE. There is no celebration of the passengers, no triumphant music. The camera moves, unsteady, as if it's simply another node within this network, this network without hierarchy, without certainty, this splay and spray of information.

Of course, there are some cultural prejudices at work. Few believe there's actually a hijacking and, if there is, that anything bad will happen. I kept imagining what the same scene would play like at air traffic control in Tel Aviv.

Which actually raises the question of action without certainty: the Israeli's have a certain faith, a moral certitude that allows them to act without total knowledge. In the US, it seems, we have to find a way to act when we just don't know. In United 93, we see some military officer trying to discover the ROE, the rules of engagement. No one knows what's happening and, even if they did, no one knows what to do.

And yet, as I said, the film is not bleak or judgemental. It simply, or not so simply, maps the flow of information within this cyborg vision, this conglomerate of machinic viewing and human understanding.

What a nice surprise, to find a film that takes up 9/11 free of the familiar pathos that surrounds it. That, alas, gives me hope.

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