United 93 (2006)
I’ve heard a lot of talk about whether America was ready for United 93. Almost every magazine or newspaper article you’d read about director Paul Greengrass’ real time account of 9/11 began with the question, “Is it too soon?” That’s mostly a personal decision. My response: of course not. They were making World War II movies while Europe was still burning and while Pearl Harbor was still recovering. Speaking of which, doesn’t anyone feel that a 9/11 movie would be much more powerful and respectful now, five years removed from one of the worst days in American history? We can still remember that awful day, and most importantly, we can use art as a means of catharsis when the subject remains relevant. Does anyone seriously want to wait 20 years down the pipe for a 9/11 movie to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer? Was 2001’s Pearl Harbor the kind of movie we’ll get when it’s “not too soon?” While I’d never insist people see United 93 if they weren’t ready, I will say it’s definitely a movie that demands to be seen sooner rather than later.
On September 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked in the sky by members of the terrorist group Al-Quaeda. Two crashed into New York’s World Trade Center building. Another crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth plane, United 93, was delayed on its initial takeoff, meaning the four hijackers on board were already behind schedule. After the hijackers had taken control of the plane and turned it back around, presumably headed toward the White House, the passengers started making phone calls from the flight and piecing together the scenario. They weren’t going to land at any airport; they were a bomb on wings. The passengers came together with a heroic plan to take back the plane and use a fellow passenger, with flying experience, to help them land. Their valiant effort ended in United 93 crashing in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
United 93 is one of the most nerve-racking movie going experiences I have ever seen. Because of our prior knowledge of the events, every little thing carries so much dread, from a man who just makes the plane to simple phone calls, unknowingly their last, that end so regularly in “I love you.” Hitchcock said tension was watching a happy couple unaware of a ticking bomb below their picnic table, and he was right. United 93 is grueling to sit through, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t rewarding. We’re going through the same situation and harrowing steps of realization as the passengers. The final phone calls on board may be the most emotionally wrenching thing I’ve seen in a movie since 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. The final 30-minutes of the film, concentrating on the passengers retaking the plane, is some of the most intense cinema I’ve seen in years. My heart was beating outside of my chest and I was shaking, even after I got out of the theater. I spent the next hour at my house walking around trying to shake it off but I couldn’t. This is an incredibly powerful and sobering film that will stay with you like a bad dream.
Witnessing the unfolding events of United 93, a spellbinding example of you-are-there cinema verite, you really feel like you’re watching a living documentary. There’s nothing sensational or overly political that happens within United 93. Greengrass even has the temerity to present the hijackers as human beings, granted human beings capable of ferocious acts of horror. The first moments of the movie are the hijackers preparing, praying, reciting the Koran, and going about their plot. You see them sweat, get antsy, and the lead hijacker evens seems a bit hesitant about following through, especially since this coordinated attack was botched by United 93’s delay on the tarmac. Some would call such a portrayal ludicrous, citing a scene where a hijacker calls his girlfriend to say his last “I love you” as apologetic claptrap. Some would take offense that the hijackers are not demonized, have horns sprouting from their heads, or laugh maniacally at spilled blood. But just like Spielberg’s portrayal of Palestinians in Munich, human evil is much more nuanced than simply painting a mustache on. United 93 shows every side to 9/11 like what a good documentary should do. This isn’t propaganda, this isn’t exploitation, this is respectful filmmaking. Yes, we?ll never know what happened on flight 93, and much of the film is speculation, but it’s speculation built around research and reverence.
Greengrass is in fine form, recreating the same sense of building desperation and terror that he so elegantly assembled in 2002’s Bloody Sunday. The antic handheld camerawork may give people some headaches, but no filmmaker does a better job of putting you in the moment than Greengrass. His decision to use real people portraying themselves, like FAA head Ben Sliney, creates a greater feel for authenticity, even having the film’s stewardesses played by real United stewardesses. None of it feels gimmicky, nor is Greengrass interested in telling a jingoistic, hyperbolic action adventure. The famous “Let’s roll” line is just another line said amongst many in the planning process for taking back the flight. The violence is sudden and shocking but never sensationalized. United 93 ends exactly as it should too. You?ll probably hear sobbing in your theater at that point; I did.
There have been complaints that the character development in United 93 is lacking. But really this is a story about 2 hours on one morning, told in real time, and how much talking do strangers do on a flight? Some, sure, but not a lot. To answer critics, if we’d gotten to know these characters extensively it would either break the fabric of reality and turn these people into eagerly sharing, easily emotive figures, not people, or would require extensive flashbacks which would remove us from the visceral feeling of the story. That’s why Greengrass cuts back to NORAD and the FAA, because there’s stuff happening there; the slow realization of fright, the disbelief, the staggering amount of confusion and miscommunication. They can’t even get anyone from the White House on the phone to even establish a chain of command. If we had staid onboard we would be watching people read magazines or eat peanuts for 30 minutes. I never once felt less for these people because of the characterization concerns.
The “ordinariness” of the passengers is what works best, because it just as easily could have been you or me, but would we have reacted the same? Had it been “Tom Cruise starring in United 93″ then it never would have worked. This excels on how realistic everything comes across, and any Hollywood moment that would shatter that realism is absent (thank God there’s no product placement). One of the more amazing aspects of United 93‘s conclusion is just how fast everything came about. These people had little time to act, much less take stock of the waking nightmare the day was turning into and formulate a plan. The movie is a touching tribute to a group of ordinary people that became something more on one of our darkest days.
Naturally, United 93 is not going to be a film for everyone. It’s unflinching, grueling, and altogether hard to sit through. It does a stupendous job of recreating that tragic day and allowing our own knowledge of the events to build an overwhelming sense of dread. Greengrass excels in this arena of storytelling and he’s worked his docu-drama magic once more, painstakingly allowing the viewer feel like they are a participant, to the point where we even get a rush of hope that maybe the passengers could take back their plane and save themselves. The question of whether it’s too soon for a major 9/11 movie has to be decided on an individual level. I don’t recall anyone griping about the thousands of documentaries and the A&E Flight 93 TV movie, all of which, yes, made money off 9/11 too. I think for us as a society, we need this movie to remind ourselves of the heroism and sacrifice of a few. It’s very easy to get lulled back to complacency, but the masterful United 93 will not allow that. This is a powerful story told without a hint of melodrama and it will be guaranteed to be near my Best of the Year list when 2006 rolls to a close.
Nate’s Grade: A