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DVD Review: United 93

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In a year of notable documentaries and faux-documentaries, United 93, a film that fictionalizes part of the events of September 11, 2001, stands out as one of the most real, in every sense of the word.   

British director Paul Greengrass combines his documentary savoir-faire with his action movie résumé to make a movie more meticulously crafted than the average documentary and more adrenaline-pumping than the average Bruckheimer film.  Using a hand-held camera, a top-notch ensemble cast, and a collective painting of one fateful morning, Greengrass recreates the drama and tragedy of 9/11 in real-time.   His use of actual aviation officials, air traffic controls, pilots, flight attendants, and military personnel only adds to the film's authenticity.

As hard as it is to sit through this film, it's easy to watch and imagine the myriad ways the film could've been transformed into a disgusting exploitation.  Thankfully, Greengrass smartly refrains from cliché one-liners. Passenger Todd Beamer's famous "Let's roll" line could've easily destroyed this film's integrity, had it been placed in the hands of someone who might've opportunistically converted it into a battle cry to cue the climactic theme music. 

still from United 93 courtesy of Special Ops Media | hosted by TinyPic.com

The talented company of actors — none who are famous and some who aren't even actors — milk the most out of ordinary lines like "Tell my family I love them." The script intentionally lacks an ounce of poetic or artfully crafted bumper-sticker dialogue, serving as a chilling reminder of the words each of us — even the poets among us — would likely utter in such a situation. 

Greengrass also manages to portray the hijackers in a way that humanizes them and exposes their vulnerabilities, in sharp contrast to the cartoonish ways the administration and numerous pundits have branded them as simply "the terrorists" or "evil."  When we see them pray or call family to express love, we see a fear, love, and religious piety that foreshadows what the other passengers exhibit, hours later.  Their unconscionable decision competes for the audience's rage with the slow response of the White House.  (Before the end credits, the audience learns "Military commanders were not notified that United 93 had been hijacked until four minutes after it had been hijacked.  The nearest fighter jets were 100 miles away.")  Their inaction, of course, sets up the need for the civilians onboard the plane to save the Capitol building.

Greengrass's DVD commentary includes smart ruminations on everything from the hijackers' act of hijacking the tolerant tenets of Islam to his decision to cut the original opening scene set in Osama bin Laden's camp in impoverished Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

John Powell's harrowing soundtrack builds upon the existing tension in subtle ways.  Ubiquitous throughout the film is his thumping, pulsating, reverberating bass drum intended to mimic a heartbeat.  This audio technique, often used in the soundtracks of thrillers, frightfests, and action films, seems entirely unnecessary here.  Indeed, my own heartbeat was pulsing at the tempo of a drum and bass song, while the United 93 soundtrack was marching to a funeral dirge.

While United 93 is not the exploitative movie-of-the-week some predicted, it isn't exactly the best tribute to the flight's victims. That's because the DVD contains a bonus documentary capturing many of the actors meeting with the families of the victims whom they're portraying.  Whereas the film is a tribute to the courage of ordinary humans, the DVD bonus doc, directed by Kate Solomon, is a moving eulogy to the victims and a fitting testimonial to the grief their families continue to endure. 

In one scene, Daniel Sauli, the actor who plays Richard Guadagno in the film, shows up to Richard's family's house.  One by one, we watch Richard's family get closer to closure from the experience.  Richard's sister talks about the struggle between protecting her brother's privacy and keeping his legacy alive.  Ultimately, she concludes she's "grateful that Richard will not be an invisible passenger in the film."  In an eerie and painfully moving moment, Richard's family notes how Daniel is wearing similar things to what Richard used to wear and remarks how "handsome" he is.  When Daniel, the actor, cries, I can't imagine any viewer not shedding tears.

In another moving moment, actress Trieste Dunne meets with the family of Deora Bodley, whom Dunne portrays.  Deora's family and friends lovingly share how they carry Deora's ashes with them, read parts of her journal, and discuss how they had to tell the FBI about her tattoos to identify her body. 

Since not all 40 victims' families are included, I can't help but wonder whether some objected, dissented, or otherwise hesitated to support a commercial movie documenting their loved ones' tragic death. Nonetheless, on the DVD documentary, nearly everyone interviewed makes clear they want this film to be seen so their loved ones' memories are preserved.  I wholeheartedly concur with the sentiment.

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About Junichi

  • The movie of the year. I hope a whole lot of people who shied away from seeing this in a theater will now rent it. It’s one of the best pieces of sheer craft and intensity I’ve ever experienced.