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Truth and the Movies

If you want to remember how you felt on September 11, 2001 there's a movie I can recommend. United 93 is the story of the hijacked plane that did not hit it's target that day. It crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers figured out the hijackers' plan and rose up against them. Watching the movie made me feel like I was on the plane. And it brought back all of the fear and anger that I and so many other Americans felt that day.

For all its masterful filmmaking, the most admirable part of United 93 was its respect for the truth.

United 93 is not a documentary. Even so, one of the lawyers for the 9/11 commission says the movie's dramatization of the events of 9/11 is closer to the truth than any government account, prior to the commission's own investigation. In the movie we see the real face of heroism without the burden of Hollywood clich? and melodrama. We see the terrorists as human beings... brutal, misguided human beings to be sure, but humans nonetheless.

Many people will argue that movies and reality have little to do with each other, and it's a reasonable argument. Reality, when it's not mundane, is confusing, complex, and hard to reduce to a coherent cinematic story. Yet when filmmakers seek to portray real events and real people, they assume an obligation to tell the truth. Unfortunately, it's an obligation they often shirk.

As a journalist I have a certain bias in this discussion. I don't think that truth is wholly dependent on one's point of view. When it comes to describing real events and situations, I believe there is a singular truth that can be known, understood, and told to a mass audience.

Of course nobody can know or tell whole truth. Paul Greengrass, the filmmaker behind United 93, couldn't have known what the terrorists on that plane were thinking or saying to each other during the flight. Their conversations in the film are the product of imagination. In order to streamline any true story for a movie audience, filmmakers also have to decide which facts to leave out.

But respect for the truth, and the determination to portray reality, made United 93 the important movie it is. Compare it to other "true? film stories like Hurricane, which is about boxer Hurricane Carter, and Mississippi Burning, about the investigation into the murders of three civil rights activists in the South.

The first movie, in one of many of its distortions, portrays Hurricane Carter as an innocent, unlikely victim of a racist criminal justice system. In fact, the real Hurricane was a violent one-time criminal who could reasonably be suspected of committing the murder he was eventually cleared of. In Mississippi Burning, FBI agents are shown as crusading investigators who used all manner of creative ruses to catch the bad guys. In reality, the agency dragged its feet in the case and the murderers were finally caught by offering a cash award for information.

Poetic license troubles me because the truth matters, and movies that claim to represent real events but disrespect the facts ultimately damage reputations and distort history's valuable lessons.

So if you're prepared to relive 9/11 (and I know that many people are not) go see United 93. It's a fine movie, made by a filmmaker who's chosen to tell a true story, rather than mold it into a fairy tale that's more to his liking.

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