I recently had the chance to catch up with two movies based on horrific real-life incidents, both of which were made with what looks like genuine concern and passion in the subject and were gripping watches. The movies that I’m talking about are United 93 and Hotel Mumbai; the former based on the WTC attacks of 2001 and the latter centering around the four-day siege of Mumbai, of which the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was a pivotal point of action. And while United 93 is the better film overall, both do justice to their grim subjects.
United 93 talks about the fourth hijacked flight, the one which effectively was the only one to not reach its target; driven from its course by its everyman heroes, passengers who probably knew they were doomed either way. Its not easy to watch the scenes of familiarity, for a lot of us, of the pre-airport routine, the slight tedium of the on-flight instructions which we hardly expect to use, and the everyday conversations abounding in a closed space of many strangers in close contact. Not easy, because we know in this case what will happen to these unsuspecting people and of the slight feeling in the back of our minds that this could be us on any of our journeys. There isn’t much of a buildup in terms of backstories for anyone, including passengers, ground personnel or the terrorists. Instead, Greengrass goes for a matter-of-fact style, covering the day’s events over the course of the film. There is hardly any wasted reel here. The attackers themselves are given brief buildups as they go about building up to their suicidal task, while the passengers are the expected maelstrom of humanity thrust together, all with their regular concerns on life and its daily vicissitudes. The personnel at the air traffic controllers are also just going about their daily jobs, unsuspecting of what a brutally unforgettable day this would be by its close. In fact, some of the real-life characters replay their own roles from that fateful day including, most memorably, Ben Sliney, the man in charge at the FAA national center. And what a first day at his new position it was for this man, including having the nerve to put an order to shutdown all American air traffic that day, a move which may have caused a lot of financial distress for airlines but one which may have potentially halted more disaster.
Hotel Mumbai, directed by the Australian Anthony Maras, takes a more conventional approach to dealing with man-made tragedy, but is nonetheless very effective and perhaps hits home more for me considering my proximity to the place where the events took place. Just like the old German Bakery blast in Pune a regrettably short time after this event, the feeling of not being at a particular place at a particular moment in time hits home as nothing but random dalliances of life and brings home a feeling of both immensely fraught sadness as well as undeserved relief that the dice didn’t roll our way this time. The film goes the age-old route of placing a few familiar Hollywood faces in the thick of the action, including Armie Hammer and Jason Isaacs, but I didn’t really have an objection to this; it is after all an international movie dealing with an event which did affect quite a few foreigners in India. It also does a good job of centering a lot of the emotional heart of the movie around Dev Patel, playing a bearer in one of the restaurants in the Taj, and Anupam Kher, a dependably familiar face from Bollywood playing the head chef. Once again, Islamic terrorists are shown getting their instructions and making their way to their city of ultimate destruction, in this case highlighted by the luminous Gateway of India in Mumbai. The attackers take the ubiquitously common taxis to reach places which are again very commonly favored by people from all walks of life, mostly in and around Colaba and Leopold Café as well as the VT station. Once they start on their gruesome tasks, we see the scenes of chaos and the soon to be shattered calm in the interiors of the Taj. A lot of the scared people run into the hotel thinking it to be a haven and are graciously allowed in by the sensible staff there. Yet, it is the Taj which becomes the centerpiece of the action over the next few days and the scenes of unrelenting tension in the hotel corridors are handled with deft efficiency despite some cliched tropes being used. In real life too, there were plenty of everyday heroes who played their part to make sure the destruction didn’t go even further than they did by the time the terrorists were apprehended, both inside and outside the hotel.
On a purely technical level and the audacity of style with which he filmed it, I would say Greengrass’ United 93 is more a movie for the ages (and it already is a mini-classic considering it came out fifteen years ago). It has also been recognized much more. But I would suggest film lovers to watch both of these films. Both provide windows into events that shaped a lot of things which came afterwards in this young century and both are done with a lot of dedication and feeling in their making. A word to the wise though; be prepared to be left with some grim afterthoughts for these films will not fade quickly from memory. The last shot, especially of United 93, is one which will haunt me for a while. The futile terror we are capable of inflicting on one another is an ongoing nightmare.