Director Paul Greengrass has made the first major motion picture about the tragedy of Sept. 11, and in so doing has set the bar so high, I cannot imagine anyone—or any film—could surpass “United 93.”
There is not an ounce of Hollywood cheese or superficiality in this remarkable reconstruction of the one flight hijacked that hellish day that did not accomplish its objective—to destroy The White House. Greengrass (also the film’s screenwriter) uses his trademark shaky-cam style to give a work of fiction (technically) the immediacy of a documentary, and the effect is chilling, gut wrenching, and absorbing. The performances from this massive cast—many of the “actors” playing themselves—are all wonderfully restrained, picking up on an understated script that always provides the sense that these are real people going about their ordinary lives—until the extraordinary occurred and they were forced to deal with it.
Greengrass could have played up the obvious heroism that it took for a handful of passengers on United 93 to rush their hijackers, storm the cockpit, and save this nation from even further tragedy. But there is no chest thumping, no melodramatic monologues, no sweeping score—everything is kept as authentic as possible and, thus, achieves maximum effectiveness. Even the now infamous “let’s roll,” uttered by one of the passengers before he rushes the terrorists and played up so highly in the media since, is just one more urgent line delivered with no more weight than any other in “United 93.”
That drive to retain the humanity of these people is what really cuts to the quick. Filmed essentially in real time, we see pilots, flight attendants, passengers, air traffic controllers, and everyone else involved in the events of that day going about their business as usual. What is about to take place is so unthinkable, the initial threat of a hijacking is almost brushed aside. Even when the first explosion rocks the World Trade Center, no one in the control rooms thinks it’s one of the jumbo jets; it’s just not possible.
It’s not until the second plane slams into the building—the real-life footage shown on the traffic tower’s monitor and zoomed in to fill the entire movie screen—that the horror finally sinks in.
From there, the remainder of “United 93” is essentially chaos. Although (thankfully) apolitical, this film certainly shines a light on the failings of bureaucracy, as the FAA and military directors can’t communicate with each other and the military can’t get in touch with the president or vice president in time for the necessary clearance to shoot down any remaining hijacked planes. The hijackers are also not played up to villainous excess. Their prayers to Allah are haunting, but Greengrass allows their actions—such as executing a flight attendant and a passenger—to speak for themselves. The terrorists are certainly anxious, their leader shows some hesitancy (and even calls a loved one prior to boarding the plane for one last “I love you”), but they show total commitment to the cause. And the results are duly horrifying. This film will haunt you, as it should.
United 93 was nearly an afterthought on 9/11, largely overlooked once it was confirmed the plane had crashed in a Pennsylvania field without harming anything or anyone else. As the Trade Center towers crumbled into twisted metal and dust and fears continued to run wild about further attacks, United 93 got lost in the shuffle. But no one will ever forget about these heroes after this. From their first panicked reactions, to trying to make sense of what’s happening in the world around them, to the realization of their fate and trying to reach loved ones one last time, to the final decision and push to overthrow the attackers, this is the best that humanity has to offer. Greengrass captures it perfectly, still managing to maintain suspense and emotion even though we all know the ending painfully well.
I didn’t know anyone who died on 9/11, but my family lives in the Maryland suburbs just outside Washington. On a day of random and unflinching violence and death, there is no reason United 93 couldn’t have gone down in my parents’ back yard. I have the brave souls on board that plane to thank for my loved ones’ lives, and “United 93,” unflinching in its own right, reminded me of that. I was literally shaking by the end.
This is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.