In the days immediately after the tragedy of September 11, the question was often broached as to how long Hollywood would wait before disgracing the memory of the event with a big-budget action movie full of explosions and larger-than-life American heroes battling shifty-eyed Arabs in the skies above New York City. Five years? Ten? Twenty? The American public is understandably wary of any film treatment of that fateful day, as it’s all too easy to picture a Michael Bay project starring Harrison Ford and Will Smith, sort of Air Force One (1997) meets Independence Day (1996).
When that film does come (and rest assured, in due time it will), hopefully it’ll receive the same scrutiny United 93 currently faces, although I suspect very little of it has to do with the actual content of the film and is more a reaction to the fact that this is the first of the 9/11 movies. It’ll be interesting to see how the discussion of the film evolves as more and more people realize just what sort of film it actually is.
The main question seems to hinge around an assumption that not enough time has passed since September 11, that the country is not yet ready for this film, regardless of content. But the beautiful thing about this, the digital age, is that the popularity of DVD allows people to view films such as this when they themselves are ready, whereas in days past such flexibility did not exist. This allows for many more options for filmmakers looking for ways to tell the stories that need to be told.
Because if art, to a degree, functions as a society’s soul, then films such as United 93 are vital to the grieving process of a country coming to terms with a horrific tragedy. They serve as a means of therapy, allowing us to move beyond it and begin the process of getting on with our lives. At the same time they also serve as a constant reminder of what has transpired, a celluloid memorial, if you will.
Little of the above has much to do with the quality of the film itself, but is an important factor when considering the climate in which the film exists. For it is nigh unto impossible to view the film objectively apart from real-life events, so there’s no point in discussing it without mentioning its larger role in society. At the same time, none of that larger context can turn a bad film into a good one, regardless of how “important” it may be.
Thankfully, Paul Greengrass’ United 93 needs no such justification, as it is a masterpiece in every way imaginable, a stunning and gut-wrenching film that makes a case for being the best American film of the decade and the most powerful piece of cinema since Schindler’s List (1993). The comparison is a convenient one both thematically and in terms of quality, the major difference being the amount of time between the event and the film honoring it.
The story of the passengers of United 93 is a unique one in world history when you consider that in the middle of this massive event that has been dissected in every way imaginable by a media desperate for answers, there exists this small pocket of mystery into which we can only glimpse. Upon learning that their hijacking was part of a larger plot and that the plane was not going to land safely, that they were in fact doomed, they took the opportunity to call their families and tell them they loved them.
At the same time they told them of a brewing plan to overtake the terrorists in a last-ditch effort to save not only their lives, but the lives of the intended target. So, with Todd Beamer’s “Let’s roll,” they bum-rushed the terrorists, falling short of saving their own lives, but succeeding in crashing the plane harmlessly in a field in Pennsylvania, far from the White House. For that deed they are, beyond the shadow of a doubt, some of the greatest heroes in American history.
Still, despite all we know about September 11, there’s no way to know for sure how things transpired on that plane. We can only speculate, connecting the dots of cell phone calls and what little hard data we have to build a mosaic of what happened, but perhaps that’s for the best. There are too few heroes these days.
But for a film version of the flight, that mosaic is precisely what Paul Greengrass had to build, largely from the information at hand and interviews with the family members of the victims, and partly from his imagination. In doing so, he eschews numerous screenwriting techniques of exposition and character development and instead focuses on the mundane conversations that exist every day on flights all over the country.
Discussions about work, pending vacations, the weather, and random bits of phone calls all provide the film’s ballast, working to ground in reality a decidedly surreal event. If it initially comes off as boring, it’s because conversations at airports are universally boring. None of that changes just because the plane’s about to be hijacked. Neither does the normal pre-flight prep work, which Greengrass films in some amount of detail, only because we know how the film will end, it comes with a sense of foreboding you wouldn’t normally find.
The shot of the plane being fueled instantly brings to mind that these cross-country flights were selected because they would have more explosive fuel on board. Greengrass lingers on the cabin door as it’s being closed for just a second longer than normal and the result is ominous. It takes your breath away because you realize it’s a death sentence, that no one is getting off that flight.
But United 93 really achieves greatness after the hijackings have thrown both the flight and the air traffic control centers into pandemonium. From the FAA trying to get in contact with the military to the military trying to clarify their rules of engagement and find a President who’s suddenly nowhere to be found, Greengrass successfully shows us an infrastructure unprepared without attempting to pin the blame.
For the goal of United 93 is not to explain why September 11 happened, but rather to show what happened. Greengrass could have easily followed the cry, “Where is the President?” with a shot of him in that Florida classroom reading a children’s book, and I suspect a number of directors would have done just that, but he doesn’t go there because there’s no need. Besides, most of the audience already has that shot in the back of their heads anyway.
Instead, he goes to the faces of perplexed air traffic controllers, to the panicked passengers, even to the terrorist praying in the cockpit, and in doing so he humanizes the tragedy. Then, in what is the film’s most powerful sequence, the passengers of United 93 begin calling the outside world and we watch as terrified faces are attached to these phone recordings we’ve heard so many times. In the midst of all this chaos the camera focuses on people hunched over, desperate for a quiet pocket where they might be able to better hear, tearfully telling someone they love them.
In another part of the plane someone is saying the Lord’s Prayer and in the back a plot is being hatched to overtake the cockpit, but the most important thing is being able to say goodbye. It is haunting and powerful and gut-wrenching and numerous other adjectives, but it is also one of the greatest final acts ever put on film.
As the film ended and the audience just sat there in silence, composing themselves, the film lover in me wanted to stay for the next screening, but the person inside doubted I could handle it. For United 93 is not only the most important film made since September 11; it is also the best.
Starring: Lewis Alsamari, J.J. Johnson, Trish Gates, and David Alan Basche
Written and directed by: Paul Greengrass
R, 111 min, 2006, USA/UK
 Not counting Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), and several other films that have only tangentially been about September 11.
 I imagine they didn’t include everything.