58. The Coptophile Column

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The author reviews the films the ‘Da Vinci Code’ and ‘United 93.’

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Oh dear! Although I can only really manage a bi-monthly trip to the cinema each year, I have to confess that I was on holiday for some of June and I really had to go to see two movies. One of them wore me out, but moved me, and the other was far too long, though nothing more than a mysterious-comic-turn. This Column is hardly ever written in the first person, but this time around it needs to be. The Da Vinci Code is quite entertaining nonsense with absolutely no religious significance whatever. It was fun, but two and a half hours of entertaining twaddle is too much. Moving past the two-hour barrier it was difficult for me to keep my eyes open. United 93 is a cinematic masterpiece, unbearably poignant for most viewers and a powerful expression of the curse of any form of religious violence. Ron Howard directed The Da Vinci Code. Tom Hanks was the principal star of the film. Akiva Goldsman adapted the novel. Millions of people have read this amusing, trivial fiction. Millions more have seen the film. Millions of dollars have already been spent on the project. Millions of pounds, Euros, Dollars & etc. were made from the movie.
Entertainment is a substantial business. But anyone who might think of The Da Vinci Code as a thought-provoking project must be very seriously unhinged. Clergy who preach about The Da Vinci Code must have extraordinarily affecting rational difficulties. The novel is an easy read and takes little time. I read it in just two sittings on a rainy day. The text is hilarious. The movie is extraordinarily pompous and very dull.
I was in a cinema with less than a hundred viewers, and I would like to have laughed all the way through, but many young people sitting nearby seemed to be serious and cried several times when they saw Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou). ‘Romance’ may be a good word for novel and film, but ‘drivel’ is much more truthful and a good deal funnier. Priests and ministers in the USA are reported to have arranged discussion groups and courses of instruction connected to Dan Brown’s novel and Ron Howard’s film. Even leaders of Opus Dei are said to speak about ‘teaching moments.’ Let us hope that these reports are only a fantasy. Even the Summer 2005 edition of The Bible In Transmission (Bible Society, Swindon) carried some nonsense about the novel.
Brown is no fool in spouting endlessly about his paperback, but writing ‘religious’ material about it seems ridiculous. A serious course of study on Islam and the Qur’an could be a very much more helpful area of research for Western Christians. The film of The Da Vinci Code has zero significance, though the novel is always amusing.
In the churches where I work as a priest, and do a daily celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we have all studied Islam and the Qur’an for several years, but I am the only person in our congregation to have seen The Da Vinci Code. Several worshippers have read the novel, including my wife, but she would not go to the movie, because two and a half hours would be ‘a mind numbing experience.’ She was right.
A considerable number of very stupid ‘Christian’ books have been written about Dan Brown’s fantasy, but one book knows that the novel and film are not a threat to the Christian faith, only a laugh: The Da Vinci Code and the Secrets of the Temple (Canterbury Press, paperback UK £4.99) is written by Robin Griffith-Jones, an Anglican priest and the Master of the Temple Church in London. He has a sense of humour and an entirely appropriate historical glance. My son sent me The Da Vinci Quiz: 501 Questions to Crack the Code. I only got five hundred right! Now, Peter Greengrass’ film United 93 is an entirely different matter. It is not only remarkable for its documentary quality, and its compelling depiction of the passengers who defied the hijackers, but it is rooted and grounded in the horrors of authentic twenty-first century religious terrorism.
The military, the intelligence services, and above all the US government, failed to take any action at all. But a scratch team of air commuters and holidaymakers were on the last plane to be hijacked - United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco - and they made an heroic attempt to seize back control of the plane before it could be used to destroy its intended target, which was the White House.
In the event, the plane crashed with the loss of everyone on board, but the courage and decisiveness of its passengers has remained a source of inspiration for the majority of the American people and an underlying reprimand for the US Government. This film has been painfully hard, indeed almost impossible for me to watch. But I could not allow the pain and suffering to stop me. America, and the world, must know that one of the central characters in the movie, focusing on air traffic control centres, which were facing major crises, was the admirable Ben Sliney who had the grave misfortune of starting his new job as Manager of the Federal Aviation Administration centre in Herndon, Virginia on 11 September, 2001. If the film star who takes the role seems entirely at home playing the part there is a very good reason for this. It is Ben Sliney himself. Ben Sliney is Ben Sliney. A number of real airline employees also play related roles. It would probably be true to say that Paul Grengrass was not simply focused upon the terrorists but upon the aircrew, especially the pilots, and the passengers. This film reveals a matchless form of individual heroism.
The biographies of some of the passengers who defied the terrorists were compelling individual presentations. Mark Bingham from California was actually returning to his home state in the West for the wedding of a close Muslim friend. Thomas Burnett excelled in gridiron football in Minnesota and was already considering a move into US politics.
One of the flight attendants CeeCee Lyles had joined United Airlines after serving for six years in the Florida police. She was the one who had discovered that both pilots had been murdered by the Muslim hijackers. Her knowledge, added to the news of the destruction of the Twin Towers on her earphones, then determined that she should, with Bingham, Burnett and others, storm the front cabin while the stricken airliner plummeted to earth near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The truth about the film is that it is focused entirely upon the prayer and fanaticism of the hijackers. British-Asian actors, not American movie stars, play the terrorists. The beginning of prayer in their hotel rooms, the continuation of scriptural repetition and the continuous use of ejaculatory prayers is the very heart of this film. It must be a challenge to any who call themselves ‘religious’ from any faith system.
United 93 is the most disturbing but probably the most significant film I have seen in over sixty years. I heard the appalling religious fanaticism, even if spoken noiselessly and repetitively, but what I really remember is that the passengers portrayed were not religious automatons. I heard their final air-to-ground telephone farewells to their loved ones. Unbearably moving. __ The Revd. Dr. John H. Watson has been writing the fortnightly Coptophile Column for Watani International since 2002. He is the author of several books including Among the Copts (2000), Christians Observed (2004), and Listening to Islam (2005).

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