United 93 recreates the flight of the fourth plane on September 11, 2001, the one on which the passengers got word by cell phone of the attacks on the World Trade Center, figured out the hijackers were on a suicide mission, and attempted to retake control of the plane. The movie was clearly made to dramatize our fascination with the fate of the unsuspecting people on the plane, those resourceful anybodies whose actions, in this version, saved the U.S. Capitol—What would we have done in their place? Would we have had their nerve?
The English writer-director Paul Greengrass allows for this projection, but doesn't hype it. He divides the story into three movements: the air traffic controllers figuring out that something is up, though they don't know what; the jihadists' attack; and the passengers' and crew's counterattack. We always feel we're present because Greengrass and his cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shoot everything with handheld cameras, but at the same time this makes every situation feel roughly equivalent. The camerawork functions like an even coat of opaque paint.
The terrorists aren't fully characterized, but neither is anyone else. (The pilots and stewardesses are played by actual pilots and stewardesses, and among the actors playing passengers I recognized a few names but no faces.) Even the famous line with which the passengers launched their offensive—"Let's roll!"—isn't isolated and framed in the usual movieish way. Our immersion in the situation is total, which also means our perspective is less limited but also less intense than it would have been if we had actually been on board.
Of course we know from the start who the terrorists are and what they're up to, and so they affect us in a more conventionally suspenseful way. (When they delay making their move on the plane, you may find yourself idiotically hoping that they won't.) Even when the terrorists and passengers appear in the same shot, waiting for the flight to be called, for instance, the terrorists seem to be in a different, more focused movie, while the passengers chat on their cell phones or peck at their laptops.
The scenes set among the air traffic controllers are altogether more interesting. The controllers are tool-edge sharp, picking up and deciphering the slightest hints over their headsets, and they're effective to the extent possible against a sneak attack. (The only snafu is the military response, but in the case of flight 93 what could the air force have accomplished that the passengers and crew didn't—downing the plane on uninhabited ground.) But it's a relief that Greengrass avoids turning the controllers' alertness into romance by focusing on heroes battling against the forces of evil and incomprehension. It's nice for a change that a major event is not being processed into the same old crud that our moviemakers have always passed off as historical filmmaking.