Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Ethics of "United 93"

Once again questions are being raised about a high profile film’s ethics in setting out to dramatize a historic event. The film in question this time is “United 93,” the heroic recreation of how the passengers on the third hijacked plane on September 11, 2001 foiled the terrorists’ plans to use the craft in a suicide bombing of the White House or the U.S. Capitol. But it seems that the objections being raised now are based on emotion and ignorance, not ethics. There is not anything intrinsically unethical about “United 93.”

The weakest complaints have maintained that it is somehow wrong for film-makers to imagine and dramatize details of historical events that exceed what is known to be true. This postulates standards that would have wiped out, to name just a small percentage of works relying on such inventions and speculations, every movie, TV drama or piece of literature about the Trojan War, the Titanic (or any other shipwreck), the Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand, the Tudor monarchs of England, the French Revolution, the Bounty mutiny, the Lincoln Assassination, the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, and the Roman Empire. The objection would also deep-six biographical works about Spartacus, Joan of Arc, Julius Caesar, Queen Elizabeth I, Genghis Kahn, Henry the Eighth, Thomas More, and Alexander the Great. It is nonsense. Any dramatic account of a historical event involves story-telling, and good story-telling requires filling in blanks. It also requires a point of view, and the shaping of events and personalities to make the story both compelling and meaningful. Can this be done maliciously, recklessly, deceptively or hurtfully? Certainly…and misuse of the technique is wrong. But to insist that it is improper for the dramatization of an event to include any unverifiable details would make history useless for dramatic exposition, robbing our culture of both great literature and popular portrayals of history. True, Americans would be exposed to less speculative history, but they would be exposed to hardly any history at all…and what little they experienced would be soporific.

The new film is also being bombarded by accusations, many of them from family members of 9/11 victims, that it is “too soon” to dramatize that day’s events. Well, we’ll see, won’t we? By definition, it won’t be “too soon” for those who choose to buy tickets. I certainly am not implying any equivalence of suffering here, but I’m a life-long Boston Red Sox fan, and I can’t stand watching replays of the ball rolling under Bill Buckner’s glove to end Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. If they made a movie about that game, I’d never go to see it: it will always be too soon for me to see a film about what was for me a traumatic moment. Yet it’s absurd for me to claim that it’s “too soon” for the movie to be made at all, or to be seen by anyone else. Similarly, I can certainly understand why many people will never feel comfortable watching dramatizations of the events of 9/11, or the Holocaust, or Pearl Harbor, or the Battle of the Bulge. But that doesn’t entitle them to decree that it’s “too soon” for others to watch them.

Finally, some are decrying the use of a tragic event for “entertainment.” The Washington Post quoted Bruce Hoffman, a counter-terrorism expert with the Rand Corporation, as making the argument that “producers and directors can have the purest and best intentions to re-create the horror and tragedy and bravery of the passengers…but the bottom line is it’s still entertainment. You have to question whether making it into entertainment cheapens and demeans it.” Here we have a prime example of the progressive degradation of literacy regarding the purpose of the arts, even among presumably well-educated individuals like Mr. Hoffman. One might also indict Hoffman for basic vocabulary deficiencies, for “entertainment” simply signifies an activity that diverts and holds attention. He uses the word as if the only entertainment he’s familiar with is “Survivor,” “There’s Something About Mary” and “SpongeBob Squarepants.” There is more to entertainment than fluff and dreck: Shakespeare’s King Lear, to name just one of thousands of examples, manages to divert while also brilliantly exploring complex issues of morality, human nature and man’s relationship to the universe. Entertainment does not only include spectacles that amuse or delight, but also those that terrify, amaze, enlighten, and educate.

These are not cheap and demeaning goals. Indeed, human character can be strengthened and enriched by such entertainment. The story of “United 93” is one of determination, resourcefulness, responsibility, sacrifice and courage in crisis. It evokes the best and noblest human instincts, and it is never too soon to do that.

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