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.