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Movie Review – United 93

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I saw United 93 this morning, and my guess is that director Paul Greengrass won’t be getting a lot of plaudits from the Academy. He’s done too good a job.

These are not impersonal airliners striking from nowhere. This plane — and by extension, the others we don’t see the interiors of — are hijacked by real people, real, malevolent people with faces.

A couple of points stand out. First, the military was consistently behind the loop. There was virtually no communication between the military and civilian air authorities. NORAD was continually tracking the wrong planes, planes which were down or had already crashed, or had already been confirmed as not hijacked. They didn’t even know United 93 was hijacked until after it hit the ground. They’re gamely trying to improvise, without weapons, without clearance, without planes, without information.

Civilian authority was similarly handicapped for precious minutes by simply disbelieving what they were seeing. The Newark Tower is staffed by trained professionals with a clear view of Manhattan, but they didn’t see the first plane hit because they weren’t looking for it, which is as good a metaphor for the government response that day as any. With no US hijackings in over 20 years, the hijack desk isn’t even manned. Since nobody sees the plane hit, nobody’s sure initially 1) what happened to American 11, and 2) what caused that big hole in the North Tower. You hear controllers saying, authoritatively, “nah, they wouldn’t fly a plane into the WTC.”

They, like the passengers on the other flights, and the European man on 93 who had been through a hijacking before, were relying on past experience.

You also realize how much the United 93 passengers gained from their hijack crew being shorthanded. With two men in the cockpit, that left only two hijackers free to try to keep the passengers cowed. One of them was constantly running back to talk to the cockpit. So not only couldn’t they see all the passengers on the air phones, they also couldn’t keep the stewardesses from seeing the pilots’ bodies, tipping off who was flying the plane.

A fascinating touch comes at the end of the film, when Greengrass cuts back and forth between the passengers saying their prayers before launching their counterattack, and the hijackers saying theirs in the cockpit. There’s no moral equivalence here, though. I don’t know Greengrass’s religion or politics; I do know that he understands there are good guys and bad guys and who are who.

As in any historical picture based on real events, you know how it turns out. You find yourself seeing people making plans for after the flight, next day, next week, next month, and remind yourself that you know what they don’t. In spite of that, you’re rooting to the very end for the passengers to win.

There’s nothing cheap or maudlin or sentimental about the ending. The focus remains on the passengers, from their point of view.

One other patron after the film complained that because the film was so factual and real-time, we never really get to know any of the hero-passengers, the four guys who put aside their fear and put together their response; that they could have been developed more fully as people.

I disagree. The passengers were more or less strangers to each other, so why should they not be strangers to us? We know what we need to know about them, and that’s enough.

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About Joshua Sharf