Release Date: September 5, 2006
United 93, the gripping and inevitably heartbreaking account of the doomed flight of the same name, is an intense and soberingly fair study of human courage in a time of despair. The tale of its passengers, who overtook the plane’s hijackers and probably diverted another 9/11 attack, has become an almost mythical rallying point for Americans. But the film’s greatest triumph, perhaps, is in its overt rejection of the jingoistic, super-patriotic hype that has been the downfall of similar 9/11 projects, and its embrace of respect, honesty and empathy.
Writer/director Paul Greengrass emphasizes this sense of objectivity and fairness from the very opening scene, in which the four hijackers are shown making final preparations and saying final prayers in a hotel room. Already, it is evident that these are not villains, nor are they the heroes they’re perceived to be by the “other side”. They’re just young men, Greengrass subtly suggests, and from the looks on their faces, they’re nervous as hell. One revealingly intimate scene shows one of the terrorists making a last phone call to a loved one before boarding the plane. “I love you,” he says, foreshadowing both the identical phone calls from passengers and the empathy with which the film will treat the terrorists.
For the airline staff and air traffic controllers, this day begins as just another Tuesday on the grind. Conversations hover around the usual topics, like the weather, families, and work-related details. in fact, much of the film’s dialogue is almost exclusively air traffic control (ATC) jargon, which is authenticated by the fact that many of the key players in these scenes are portrayed by themselves, not actors. Sometimes this works, and in a few rare cases it’s a distraction. The clear standout here is Ben Sliney, who was on his first day on the job as FAA Director of Operations on 9/11, and whose screen time probably benefited from his natural screen presence.
The flight’s passengers are not referred to by name–these people are strangers to the audience just as they were to one another that morning. They are not “characters”, not the heroes the media will later canonize. They order eggs for breakfast. They flip through travel guides. Some try to catch up on work on a laptop. When flight 93 is delayed at first, it’s a mere inconvenience.
Once the hijackers overtake the plane and the action picks up, Greengrass uses his documentary background (and no shortage of a hand held camera) to re-create the claustrophobic confines of a hijacked airplane and the frantic control rooms tracking it. Very rarely is the camera stable; we feel the same urgency as the people on-screen. Even the few exterior shots are cluttered with buildings, antennae, and other airport apparatus. For Greengrass, point of view comes first, and we are forced to identify with the on-screen personalities. The other events of the day, for example, are only referred to through a lens–a phone call, a TV broadcast, through the window of a New York City control tower.
United 93‘s inevitable fate is not taken for granted by its heroic passengers. Their genuine hope for survival, though largely based on speculation, reflects the only kind of logic imaginable (how does one truly react in such a situation?). Their frantic plotting and subsequent actions make up the film’s harrowingly intense final act. Some movies are billed as “roller coaster rides”; United 93‘s closing minutes are the closest thing to the actual plane crash it depicts. Hushed phone calls, frequent extreme close-ups and meticulously lightning-quick editing form the adrenaline-drenched atmosphere that can only breed such acts of courage.
Perhaps the most poignant scene in the film comes near the end, after the terrorists have already hijacked the plane. Shots of them uttering nervous prayers in Islam are juxtaposed with shots of terrified passengers choking out verses of the “Our Father” in between sobs. United 93 does not judge either, and it does not attempt to inspire, deify, demonize or moralize. Rather, it succeeds in recreating the events as they were and placing us in their midst, allowing us to think–and feel–for ourselves.
The Upside: Greengrass’s devotion to objectivity and his relentless pacing at the end make the film both important and entertaining.
The Downside: Some of the “as them self” casting moves were a bit misguided (i.e. the female officer at Herndon, Sliney’s military liaison) and could be an occasional distraction.
On the Side: Ben Sliney was originally connected to the project as an advisory. He impressed Greengrass enough to land a small role at first, and eventually was offered the chance to play himself.
Final Grade: B+