United 93 Review
By Joe Lozito
Watching "United 93" on opening night in New York City was a singular experience. There had been a lot of controversy around whether it was too soon to release a "9/11 movie". Judging by the dullards in the theater still fiddling with their cell phones well into the film's opening minutes, I think America's ready for a reminder.
However, "United 93" - Paul Greengrass' telling of the hijacked aircraft which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania - is not a "9/11 movie". September 11th was about a lot more than flight 93. It was about, among other things, the politics and ideologies of nations so opposed that their only recourse was (and is) war. "United 93", though, doesn't tell that story. Nor does it make a statement about the events of that day. Mr. Greengrass, in reality, doesn't choose a very polarizing subject for his film (it would be hard to disdain the men and women who found themselves captive on that plane). "United 93" is more like a toe in the water; a first attempt by Hollywood to touch on the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil. And as such, it's a difficult, reverent, moving piece of filmmaking.
I can't think of a better choice to direct Hollywood's first foray into this subject matter than Mr. Greengrass. After 2002's "Bloody Sunday", his take on the massacre of Irish protesters by British troops, Mr. Greengrass proved his blockbuster mettle with "The Bourne Supremacy"
, a frenetic, if somewhat hollow, entry in that spy franchise. As a director, his gift is his ability to use a hand-held camera to tell his stories as near-documentaries. Nowhere has that talent been put to better use than "United 93".
In fact, "United 93" is so close to a documentary that most of it feels like a simple reenactment. The early scenes contain little discernible dialogue, save some overlapping background conversations on cell phones or down corridors. Mr. Greengrass cuts between the boarding process at Newark airport and various air traffic control units along the East Coast. The scenes in air traffic control are particularly compelling not just for their realism but for how Mr. Greengrass is able to tell his story with little to no exposition. We never learn how the controllers do their jobs, or what all their jargon means, but somehow we understand what they're saying and doing, and we hang on their every word even though we may not completely understand it. It's possible that the story is so ingrained that little explanation is necessary.
Mr. Greengrass and his cast also successfully capture the naiveté of what has now become known as a "pre-9/11 world". I remember waking up in my midtown Manhattan apartment that day, after the first plane had hit the World Trade Center, and thinking, "How are they going to fix that?" Likewise, there is no mention of terrorism for a majority of "United 93". It's not top of mind at that time. Mr. Greengrass casts unknown actors and, in the case of some air traffic controllers, the real people themselves, giving the film a further sense of authenticity. We don't meet these characters as people - I'd be hard pressed to tell you their names - but we identify with them, and that's where the power of the film comes from. Mr. Greengrass even makes sure to give the hijackers a fair shake, showing them to be way over their heads. Once the hijackers take control of the aircraft, the film's focus shifts to the main cabin and stays there for the remainder of the film. At that point, the film takes on a nearly unbearable sense of dread until its harrowing final moments.
I was sure I knew what I'd think of "United 93". I was going to talk about how Mr. Greengrass tells a reverent but lifeless story. I was going to say that the film falls victim to standard Hollywood bombast, or that the story feels tailored to the typical three act structure. But those final minutes shut my mouth. In the end, you'll get out of "United 93" what you bring to it. If you go in thinking this is going to be a typical Hollywood exploitation of an unspeakable tragedy, you'll be able to find that in here. If, on the other hand, you think film is a viable medium to lend a modicum of understanding to events that defy rational comprehension, you might find that here too. I found myself not so much speechless or engrossed (though I was certainly those too) but transported, as the best of films will do, to a place of understanding. It's not too soon for films told with as much care as this one.