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United 93 (2006)  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 28 April 2006

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Film Rating:
4.5
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It’s unusual when the trailer for a movie arouses so much controversy that it’s reported in all the news media, but that happened with “United 93.” This is the first studio movie on the events of September 11, 2001, though there was a TV movie earlier this year, “Flight 93,” about the same incident the film soberly depicts.

Writer-director Paul Greengrass adopted a semi-documentary style similar to that he used on his excellent “Bloody Sunday” of a few years ago. Nothing in the film is played for melodramatic value; what we see—in real time—looks very much like the real event probably did. The movie is very respectful of the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, Newark-San Francisco; the families of those killed reportedly have approved of this movie.

Using highly realistic sets (the movie was shot mostly in England) and matter-of-fact acting—including some of the real participants—Greengrass uses hand-held cameras, deliberately erratic editing and a toned-down musical score.

Some have claimed it’s “too soon” to do a movie about 9/11, but the film itself is strong evidence for the other point of view: that we need to occasionally remind ourselves of what happened on that black day. Weren’t we all huddled around TV sets, staring in disbelief as the World Trade Center towers blazed, then collapsed? We couldn’t see what happened in hijacked United 93, so Greengrass has shown us.

He does not interpret the events—it may indeed be too soon for that—but shows what happened aboard the hijacked airliner that didn’t reach its intended destination, the Capitol building in Washington D.C. The passengers fought the terrorists, and their actions brought the plane down far short of its goal. All died. Greengrass doesn’t make the argument that everyone aboard was a hero; one passenger, convinced it’s a “normal” airliner hijack, struggles to prevent the others from attacking the determined Arab fanatics who have taken over the plane. The movie is bracingly honest, not melodramatic.

“United 93” opens in the early morning hours of September 11th; we see the four terrorists at their morning prayers, leaving notes for their families, as they go to their certain deaths. The crew of the plane, chatting about everyday events—the flight is expected to be uneventful, even boring—boards the plane. Then the passengers.

Greengrass, who also scripted, backs off from picking out a few passengers as principal characters, in accordance with the documentary style. (It’s a shade disconcerting that one of the passengers is played by familiar David Rasche, who plays the President in the recent “The Sentinel.” No one else is familiar; I even missed Gregg Henry, appearing as a military officer. (He’s also in “Slither.”)

All three of the other planes are hijacked prior to the terrorists taking of United 93. Greengrass cuts between the plane and various air traffic control offices, where increasingly disturbed people hunch over glowing tubes, unable to quite believe what is happening. There hasn’t been a hijack in 20 years—and on this day, one follows another. One of the ATC offices faces downtown Manhattan. When the first airliner strikes the World Trade Center north tower, most believe at first that it was a small private plane. But when the second strikes everyone lapses into stunned silence. Something very big is happening.

There are also tense, realistic scenes in military air control headquarters; the unit chiefs become increasingly disturbed as they realize they simply have no way of putting fighter planes into the sky to bring down the hijacked planes. By the time they do, they chose not to attack any airliners—probably the wisest decision, as it turned out that when they could make this decision, all four hijacked planes had crashed.

But United 93 didn’t crash into its target, partly because the terrorist leader was cautious and held back from taking over the plane. The horrified passengers begin using cell phones and in-flight phones to call their loved ones; they learn about the attacks on the World Trade Center. A few passengers realize that those who have taken over their plane are not just hijackers, who traditionally wanted money and a means of escape, but a suicide mission, and that unless they act, they’re surely doomed. They also realize that their plane is now a flying weapon aimed at a major target. So they strike back.

Because the events of 9/11 are so indelible, “United 93” is interesting even before the film actually starts—you wonder about the depiction of everything. As time passes, you relax, now aware that Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”) has made careful, respectful choices. But even though you know this story will have an inevitable, tragic ending, suspense creeps in anyway, and your emotions are roused. For me, the point at which it began to be agonizing was when the passengers, knowing they are about to die, begin telling (by phone) their relatives and friends that they love them—and “goodbye.” But again Greengrass is honest and rigorous: he doesn’t play these intensely dramatic scenes for emotional value—he merely shows them to us. The emotional value simply is there, clearly and honestly presented.

The film is a fitting tribute to all those innocents who died on 9/11, particularly to the passengers and crew of doomed “United 93.”







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