approved for all audiences

a critical and rhetorical look at the art and artifice of the movie trailer


United 93/World Trade Center

Like the trailer for The U.S. vs. John Lennon, these two trailers are out to accomplish something larger than merely convincing viewers to see the movies they advertise. Because of the subject matter, they must convince their audiences of the simple necessity of the films themselves. When United 93 was released in the spring of 2006, many people complained that it was too soon to be releasing movies that depict the events of September 11th. Now, only a few months later, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is poised for its U.S. release. Despite the success and critical acclaim garnered by United 93, I don’t think that people are much more comfortable with the idea of 9/11 movies.

What elements in the two trailers speak to this dynamic? Based on what we see in the two trailers, how do the movies deal with this situation? In other words, what is their approach – in terms of tone, perspective, perhaps even political stance – concerning the events that the films depict?

United 93

And here’s World Trade Center


I have to admit that United 93 is the only trailer discussed so far that I have also seen the movie it is an advertisement for. I may have a hard time separating the two experiences, but I’ll do my best to restrict the conversation to the trailer alone.

The trailer for United 93 sets an interesting tone for itself: one that is quite complex in terms of film genre, not to mention emotional content. The jerky hand-held camera style gives the trailer a documentary feel, while several other things might lead you to believe it is an action movie. This is implied primarily by the decision to advertise the director’s name and his two most recent films. Paul Greengrass may be most well known for his work on The Bourne Supremacy, but his film Bloody Sunday is a closer comparison to United 93. A “dramatization” of a 1972 Irish civil rights protest and its violent outcome, Bloody Sunday shares the same dramatized documentary style as United 93. However, among your average moviegoers, Greengrass is a relative unknown, while The Bourne Supremacy is not. In light of that association, I would imagine most viewers of this trailer get the wrong idea about exactly what the director and the film are up to.

Speaking of action movies, how does the trailer depict the “good guys and bad guys”? Do you notice anything about the race, ethnicity, and/or gender of the passengers on United 93? What about the highjackers? Are they easily separated from the rest of the passengers? The passengers are mostly white, middle class, or upper middle class Americans. When I first saw this preview one of the things that stuck out to me was how the hijackers didn’t look middle eastern in an overly-stereotypical sense: there skin tones are very light, they don’t show any outward expressions of their faith, and we never hear them talk. I think you’ll notice in both previews discussed in this post, that there is a great deal of effort put into minimizing any sense of us-versus-them patriotism. There are no American flags waving in the trailer for United 93 (this is not the case for World Trade Center, however).

What else is conspicuous by its absence? The families of the passengers and crew are only implied. We only see the emotional reactions of the passengers, crew, air traffic control, and military personnel. I think it’s worth noting that this dynamic is maintained throughout the film as well. Though we may hear passengers talking to their families via airline phones or cell phones, there is no depiction if their families onscreen. I think it is also worth noting that while we see a brief image of the second plane heading toward the World Trade Center, we do not see the moment it makes impact. Instead we hear the explosion and then immediately the viewer’s perspective is focused on the reactions of air traffic control and military personnel.

Though it may be easy to misconstrue this trailer as being an advertisement for an action movie, as previously noted, the conscious emotional restraint mentioned above, and the general lack of violence onscreen should lead us to believe otherwise. If we also take into consideration some of the more thoughtful elements of the trailer, I think we will get a much clearer impression. A good deal of effort is put into setting the tone of that particular morning. Much is business as usual, but we also see signs of hope and prosperity: we hear a radio announcer say that the weather is “conducive to just heading out and enjoying the day”, one of the passengers is talking to a co-worker who says “the meeting last night was great”, and though I would be surprised if the irony is lost on anyone, another passenger looks thrilled to have “just made it” on board the flight. Surely it is a vast oversimplification of the emotional and intellectual content that the film deals with, as is the case with most tag lines, when we see these words displayed onscreen - On the day we faced fear, we also found courage – but I don’t think anyone can safely say that this will be a sensationalized depiction of events that are better left alone. The “honesty” implied by the documentary style, along with these signs of conscious restraint go a long way to making viewers more comfortable with the intentions of this particular movie. At the same time, the trailer doesn’t go out of its way to make a case for the films legitimacy in the face of so much opposition from the public. I wonder if this was intentional, as it seems to poise the film in a position in between various extremes, forcing the viewer to find out for him or herself exactly what the film is up to.


World Trade Center is dealing with the same problems. However, this film has an added disadvantage. To put it most directly, the director Oliver Stone is not known for his sensitivity, nor for your garden variety American patriotism. In other words, if World Trade Center had taken the same ethos-driven approach as United 93, it would have been even more detrimental to the project of the trailer. Just imagine the following text displayed on screen about a minute into the trailer… “from the director of Born On the Fourth of July and Natural Born Killers”, perhaps right after Nicolas Cage says “we were prepared for everything, but not this”. It wouldn’t be very convincing, would it? Obviously, the editor of this trailer was aware of that and decided to leave Oliver Stone’s name out of the trailer entirely.

Problems with negative associations aside – perhaps this is a good example of the four “Idols” of Francis Bacon, or perhaps it is a prejudice that is entirely justified – what are some other comparisons we can make to United 93? The documentary style is completely absent. This is a big Hollywood movie, and there are a hundred things that say so in the trailer. Here’s just a few: the lush and elegiac orchestral music never lets us lose our grasp on the film’s emotional direction, big name actors and actresses – the actors in United 93 were either virtually unknown, or, in the case of air traffic and military personnel, were played by the real people involved in the events of 9/11 – that will not let us forget that we’re watching a movie (let alone a Hollywood movie), bigBigBIG production values – any of the shots on the streets of NYC, or of the first responders inside the collapsing World Trade Center, or even the CGI shot overhead downtown NYC at the end of the trailer, would have probably spent United 93’s entire budget.

While the trailer for United 93 endeavors to restrain itself whenever possible, World Trade Center seems equally as determined to exploit the viewer’s emotional reaction whenever the opportunity arises. The mere inclusion of “friends and family” is enough to prove this particular point. There are no images in the trailer for United 93 of wives collapsing into chairs, or mothers hugging their children, and though we may hear passengers talking to their families on cell phones, we certainly don’t see shadowy images of anyone, pinned beneath several tones of rubble, making the pained effort to scribble “I heart U” on scraps of paper. In fact, no one in the trailer for United 93 – or the film itself, for that matter – even comes close to saying anything as rhetorically sensational as “let’s roll”.

Please, don’t misunderstand me. I haven’t passed any judgment on Stone’s film, certainly not without having seen it. I happen to feel that we are need of more films dealing with 9/11 and its aftermath, but like The U.S. vs. John Lennon before it, I think we should be decidedly wary of just what we are being made to think or feel without our active participation in the matter. Plato believed that the truth should be allowed to speak for itself. While any attempt of that sort, while simultaneously endeavoring to advertise for a motion picture, may be fraught with difficulties, I think these two trailers are examples of the difference between a more restrained and honest appeal, and something that strays into emotional manipulation.


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