United 93 contains many haunting moments, but one comes of great surprise. At an air traffic command center, the staff stands about, confused over reports of a hijacking. A plane has disappeared from the grid, and they don’t know what to make of it. Someone brings CNN up on the large viewing screen, they stand, baffled, at the image of a smoking hole in the north tower of the World Trade Center. Reliving the beginning of the attack, only armed with the knowledge we have now, is shattering in a very unexpected way.
British director Paul Greengrass has put together a look at 9/11 with a narrow focus, but with searing strength and focus that puts the viewer in the center of the action in a way not seen since Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day assault sequence. We already know the terrible outcome, but watch with curiosity and suspense, secretly hoping that perhaps history can change, if just for this one movie. Just because we know it won’t doesn’t make the final passenger assault any less gripping or heartbreaking.
Shot in the British docu-drama style that severed the Greengrass-directed The Bourne Supremacy so well, the film never once feels like fiction, but an omnipresent insider’s view of the action. The plot moves quickly but with great dread, scenes inside air command inter-cut with the doomed flight, where the four hijackers anxiously await their time to strike. On the ground, chaos runs rampant, with hundreds of people frantically trying to coordinate a response, ounces of clarity coming bundled with pounds of confusion.
Many of the air control and military personnel are played not by actors, but by the real people, which some have said augments the authenticity. I instead offer the argument that the plane sequences seem so realistic, that Greengrass could have effortlessly pulled off the same effect using a cast entirely composed of actors. The film’s accuracy stems from its incredible power, not the other way around.
Much has been made about the film’s lack of a political stance, but all films are political, whether or not they know it. The hijackers are shown as real people, true, but it seems childish to imagine that evil men don’t form relationships, shave, or get nervous. The sympathy rests exclusively with the victims, who each receive as much screen time as they require, and no more. I struggled to hear names and hints of who each passenger was, but the only one I recognized for sure was Jeremy Glick, a judo expert who the film theorizes lead the charge. Most of the passenger dialogue involves planning the attack, or very painfully, final phone calls home.
One shocking moment that has received little press (as of now) comes towards the end, where a German passenger tries to alert the hijackers to the rebellion before being restrained. I researched the incident, but could find nothing to support the event, except that a German man was in fact on the plane. Was Greengrass trying to portray Americans as the people who stand up and fight back against terror, while cowardly Europeans such as the Germans would rather negotiate and surrender? Probably not, but the argument could certainly be made.
If the takeover of the plane is gruesome, the passenger’s assault serves as a moment of bloody catharsis. It would be hard not to feel a small piece of joy as the hijackers panic, terrified that instead of becoming part of a holy missile to destroy the U.S. Capitol Building, they are going to be quite literally torn to pieces by furious passengers. I suspect that after the horrified screams of the passengers, the film’s most talked about sound effect will be the sickening crunch of a fire extinguisher caving in a hijacker’s skull.
Endlessly talked about in the mainstream press, United 93 interestingly hasn’t received as much buzz as it might amongst audiences. Many feel the film comes too soon after 9/11, while others are apprehensive about having to view the event through the eyes of the dead. Is United 93 too soon?
United 93 not only isn’t too soon, it hasn’t arrived quickly enough. It succeeds at honoring the victims of 9/11 beyond the wildest expectation. Appropriately harrowing and terrifying, it instantly reaches a realm of importance that few films do. To avoid this genuinely relevant and amazing film out of fear would be a disservice to oneself and the memory of those portrayed within. Mark my words, there won’t be a more meaningful work of art made for a long time to come.
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