United 93 (United States/United Kingdom, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It is not an easy thing to walk into a theater and willingly open oneself to being transported back to the blackest day (at least thus far) of the 21st century. There are those who believe this movie should not be released, that it is "too soon." I will admit to having believed there was merit to this position - until I saw Paul Greengrass' vision brought to the screen. United 93 is its own most compelling defender. There's not a whiff of exploitation to be found. This is an honest, fact-based account that exists for two reasons: to assure that we do not forget the events of that day and to remind us that amidst all the horror and tragedy, there was still room for heroism. If not for the actions of the doomed passengers of United Flight 93, the United States might not have a Capitol Building.

There are too many stories from September 11, 2001 to be told in one movie. That's one reason why others (such as Oliver Stone's World Trade Center) are currently in production and more will come along in future years. Documentaries already litter the landscape; now their feature counterparts are arriving. United 93 comes in the wake of the made-for-television Flight 93. Both recount the last, tragic hour aboard the plane, albeit in different ways and from different perspectives. And, as Flight 93 represents one of the best non-HBO cable movies to reach the small screen in recent years, it would not be hyperbole to make a similar claim about United 93 with respect to movie theaters. Certainly, no movie in the last two years has evoked such a visceral response.

Five years ago in September, most of us watched events unfold via the detached perspective of television news feeds, with the familiar, paternal presences of Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Tom Brokaw as guides. Here, Greengrass takes us into the heart of the maelstrom, collapsing the distance between the audience and the event. Greengrass' style is that of a "you are there" documentary with hand-held cameras providing the necessary immediacy. There is minimal incidental music, and what there is, is used sparingly and effectively. Little known actors are employed, reducing the likelihood that a familiar face will interfere with character identification. (In fact, in the case of some of the on-the-ground officials appearing in the film, the individuals play themselves.)

Greengrass uses a two-pronged approach to the events of the morning of September 11. With things unfolding in near real-time, there is plenty of "dead space" that needs to be filled as passengers board the flight, the plane waits its turn to use the runway, and the aircraft climbs to cruising altitude. United 93 fills this space not through flashbacks or other "character building" exercises, but by taking us to FAA headquarters; air traffic control centers in Boston, New York, and Cleveland; and NORAD. Through the eyes of the people working in these locations, we see the situations of the morning develop, and understand the confusion, miscommunication, and misinformation that resulted in civilian and military paralysis. When FAA manager Ben Sliney finally makes the determination to close off U.S. airspace, most viewers will breathe a sigh of relief.

Once the terrorists act on board United 93, the film narrows its primary focus to those events. We see things unfold as they have been described in documentaries and print articles. After stabbing a passenger and killing the pilot and co-pilot, the terrorists seize control of the plane and turn it toward Washington D.C. The cowed passengers, huddled together in the back of the plane, make phone calls to loved ones and learn what has happened in New York City. They resolve to rush the cockpit and take control of the plane - or die trying. A furious struggle ensues but, before the passengers can wrest control from the hijackers, the plane goes into a death spiral and crashes. United 93 ends with a view out the cockpit window of the onrushing ground, then blackness. Viewers may be mid-way through the closing credits before they have recovered enough to move from their seats.

United 93 is powerful not only in the way it provides hope through the actions of a few unlikely heroes, but in its ability to take us back through time to a day many of us would prefer not to remember, but will never forget. The film is remarkable in that not only does it do the big things right, but it flawlessly captures the details. It's hard to express the growing feeling of dread the film generates as we watch the passengers take their seats and endure the routine that every flier has become accustomed to before takeoff. It's all so ordinary, but we know how things will end.

Character development is not a priority for United 93. We get to know these people as we might familiarize ourselves with fellow passengers on a plane - fleetingly, and not deeply. Some of the names are familiar: Mark Bingham, Todd Beamer, Tom Burnett, and so on. We hear the now-famous "let's roll" phrase, although it's uttered not as a call to battle but as part of a larger comment. These are people who, under different circumstances, might never do anything deemed "heroic." But they rise to the occasion, although it isn't without fear, trepidation, and much shedding of tears. Watching these people deliver good-byes to loved ones via cell-phones is heartbreaking.

Likewise, United 93 does not delve into the background of the terrorists. Other films have done that, but it isn't on Greengrass' agenda, nor is sympathizing with them or demonizing them. He presents them as individuals blinded by a cause, who don't see their fellow passengers as more than a dangerous inconvenience. Yet, as we watch them gathered in the airport lounge before boarding the plane, we wonder what they are thinking as they look into the eyes of people they will be killing less than two hours later. The only nod to humanizing the terrorists is that one of them, Ziad Jarrah (Khalid Abdalla), is shown placing a call to someone and saying "I love you" before boarding the plane. Later, he appears reluctant to order the attack to start. But whether that is because he is nervous or because he doubts the righteousness of his actions is not made clear.

In the multiple air traffic control centers, we see the routine of everyday activity spiral into chaos as one plane after another loses contact and drops its transponder signal. Lines of communication are fragmented and bad information is passed back and forth (especially concerning American Airlines 11, the location of which becomes a source of confusion). NORAD is unprepared. They can't get planes in the air. Once they finally launch, they have problems getting FAA clearance to fly over Manhattan. Two of their fighters have no weapons, but it doesn't matter because they are unable to obtain a clarification about the rules of engagement.

Greengrass, an Englishman, might not immediately seem like the best choice to direct a film about an American tragedy, but the results argue in his favor. He is a filmmaker with a social conscience. In addition to helming the popcorn thriller The Bourne Supremacy, he also made Bloody Sunday. His vision for United 93 was not to make a political statement or to cast blame. He wanted to craft a film that would bring people together, not split them apart along political or ideological lines.

One should not confuse United 93 with a documentary. Although it uses the historical record as a basis for its story, the dramatization relies upon Greengrass' imagination for everything for which we do not have confirmation: conversations between passengers, facial expressions, and what happened during those final, confused moments. In real life, we do not know if the passengers breached the cockpit or whether they merely came close. We do not know how many terrorists they may have killed. And we do not know whether the hijackers crashed the plane or whether it went into a death spiral during a struggle for the controls. Greengrass makes assumptions, and it's hard to argue with any of them.

United 93 is a masterful motion picture. Its impact stays with the viewer; its images are hard to shake. In the years since 9/11, much of what happened that day has become ingrained in our culture. We have absorbed it. United 93 picks the scab and brings back the freshness of the wound. But the passage of time allows us to see the events of this film in a larger context. I do not use the phrase "must see" lightly (and there are those for whom this film may be too painful). Seeing United 93 represents a difficult film-going experience, and one that should not be undertaken lightly. It's hard to imagine anyone not being affected on some level by United 93. But the value of what this picture imparts is worth the challenge of sitting through it. When I compile my Top 10 list of films for 2006, United 93 will be on it, and almost certainly close to the top.

United 93 (United States/United Kingdom, 2006)

Ranked #2 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2006
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 2006-04-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1