Upon entering the movie theater on opening night of Paul Greengrass' brilliant film United 93, I was quickly reminded that this was not going to be another escapist night at the movies. A local TV reporter with his entire technical crew ambushed me before I could get to the popcorn stand and preceded to interview me as far as what I expected from this movie and even more importantly whether or not I felt that “it was too soon” for this movie to come out. My initial response was “that depends on how the film is handled”, which literally prompted the reporter to commit me for a second interview after the viewing of the film. Upon exiting the theater, still with a bucket full of popcorn barely touched, I was approached again by the same reporter. Still trying to put my thoughts together and completely out of words (very unusual for me), I managed to respond to the same question concluding “that is never too soon nor ever a right time” to watch something like that but that although shaken, I was glad to have experienced this film.
United 93 is a tough and honest, fact-based account of what can be described as perhaps one of the darkest days so far of the 21st century. The film serves both as a cautionary tale on human folly and vulnerability and more importantly as a masterful and heartbreaking tribute to unexpected heroes in the face of adversity, horror and tragedy.
The story of United Flight 93 on the infamous 9/11 doomsday scenario is brought to the screen without a whiff of exploitation, false sentimentality, or political agenda. Director Paul Greengrass' takes us into the heart of the nightmare unfolding in near real-time, almost cinema verite style, relying on minimal incidental music, little known actors, lots of hand-held camera work that provide the necessary immediacy. Even with these elements United 93 is not to be confused with a documentary. Although it uses historical fact and documentary style techniques it is also a very well crafted and responsible dramatization of the real life events, very much in the same vein as Greengrass’ 2002 film, Bloody Sunday, which recreated the 1972 British Army’s massacre of Northern Irish protesters.
The movie opens quietly with an Islamic prayer and the eerie counterpoint of images of the terrorist heading towards the airport. Greengrass wisely portrays these men as regular cleancut, preppy looking everymen, immediately discarding the typical terrorist stereotype, adding more complexity to the situation. Then we follow the mundane routine at Newark airport where Flight 93 began. A genuine feeling of dread is generated as we, the audience knowing the tragic outcome of the story, watch the passengers endure ordinary pre-take off routines that will lead to the most tragic and extraordinary day of their lives. We are also introduced briefly to the main characters at the FAA headquarters and the air traffic control centers in Boston, New York, Cleveland and NORAD. Then we see the situations of the morning develop, we see the puzzlement at the Federal Aviation Administration command center, as first one and then another flight veers off course, and then more missing flights, and we understand the confusion and miscommunication that resulted. Scenes on board Flight 93 alternate with scenes inside the airport towers and a military command room.
At the FAA national center, the man in charge begins to piece things together and orders a complete shutdown of all American air traffic. Military commanders try again and again, with increasing urgency, to get presidential authorization to use force against civilian aircraft with no response. And even though director Greengrass has made a concious desicion to remain apolitical with his approach, the presentation of facts are so clear and dramatic on their own, that is very hard not take sides or feel emotional with the obvious flaws in the system contributing to the tragedy. While watching, I couldn't help but make my own judgements as I remembered the opening scene in "Fahrenheit 9/11" in which President George W. Bush amazingly sat in a children's classroom in Florida for seven minutes without doing nothing after being informed of the attack on the World Trade Center. What was he waiting for? The Magic Wand Story?
The second half of the film narrows its primary focus on the terrorist takeover on Flight 93 and on its tragic outcome. The terrified passengers, huddled together in the back of the plane, make phone calls to their loved ones and learn about the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. After an attendant sees the dead bodies of the two pilots, they resolve to rush to the cockpit and take control of the plane or die trying. One of the passengers states, “No one is going to help us. We’ve got to do it ourselves.” And watching these people deliver their good-byes to loved ones via cell-phones is heartbreaking.
The film becomes a highly visceral, emotional and brilliant exercise in suspense, even if we as an audience know the inevitable tragic outcome of the story. The last 30 minutes of the film are almost unbearable to sit through and include perhaps the most harrowing moments ever committed to film thanks to Greengrass on target direction, Barry Ackroyd's extraordinary cinematography and the Douglas & Rouse team's adrenaline driven edits.
United 93 neither blames nor exonerates the Bush administration for its flaws but instead wisely focuses in presenting a very honest tribute to the tragedy without any political bias. Director Greengrass keeps the story scaled down to the vulnerable men and women involved resulting in a powerful account that pays tribute to the many heroes of that grim chaotic autumn day in 2001. The movie is deeply disturbing, tightly wrapped and superbly precise. In retrospect, there will never be a “right time” to watch anything like this, but it will never be “too soon” to be reminded of the folly and glory that as human beings we are all capable of. Paul Greengrass' landmark film United 93 reminds us of both.