Directed by Paul Greengrass Cast: JJ Johnson, Polly Adams, Opal Alladin, Starla Benford, Trish Gates, Nancy McDoniel, David Alan Basche, Richard Bekins, Susan Blommaert, Gregg Calahan, Ray Charleson, Christian Clemenson, Liza Colon-Zayas, Lorna Dallas, Denny Dillon, Trieste Dunn, Kate Jennings Grant, Gregg Henry, Peter Hermann, Tara Hugo, Marceline Hugot, Cheyenne Jackson, Joe Jamrog, Corey Johnson, Masato Kamo, Becky London, Peter Marinker, Jodie Lynn McClintock, Libby Morris, Tom O'Rourke, Simon Poland, David Rasche, Erich Redman, Michael J. Reynolds, John Rothman, Daniel Sauli, Rebecca Schull, Chloe Sirene, Tony Smith, Patrick St. Esprit, Rich Sullivan, Olivia Thirlby, Chip Zien, Leigh Zimmerman, Khalid Abdalla, Lewis Alsamari, Omar Berdouni, Jamie Harding 2006 110 minutes Rated: (for language and violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 19, 2006.
The first theatrical release to focus squarely on the events of 9/11, "United 93" has been met with a flurry of outrage and controversy. Some people, quite understandably, believe that it is too soon to depict on film and with actors the worst disaster in American historya day that isn't even five years old. On the other side of opinion are those people who feel that anything that respectfully calls attention to the lives lost and the way the country was forever changed might actually be healing and beneficial. Walking into the screening room, I was on the fence of the debate; while I had no particular problem with the decision to make such a film, there was the nagging sense that the sensationalistic subject matter was Hollywood's latest shallow moneymaking scheme. If this is, indeed, even a fraction of the reason behind the existence of "United 93," it does not detract from the picture's emotionally devastating cumulative impact. This is two hours of cinema that is uncomfortable and sobering to withstand, but impossible to take your eyes off of.
Reportedly made with the willing participation of the victims' families, "United 93" mixes little-known professional actors, real-life air traffic controllers, pilots and flight attendants, and even a few people portraying themselveslike FAA national operations manager Ben Slineyin a chillingly accurate and improvisational recreation of the life-changing morning hours of September 11, 2001. Under the watchful guidance of writer-director Paul Greengrass (2004's "The Bourne Supremacy"), the film captures the feel of a fictional thriller that might have been deemed far-fetched if it hadn't really happened. In switching between the mounting confusion and paranoia of the air traffic controllers and government officials on the ground as they watch one, and then two, planes fly into the World Trade Center, and the actions of the workers and passengers aboard hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, Greengrass achieves the daunting task of not shying away from the horrific images ingrained in all our minds from that day and keeping the experience as non-exploitative as he possibly can.
Director Paul Greengrass sticks closely to the facts and recorded documents available, avoiding all temptations to make a political statement or go for jingoistic, flag-waving histrionics. Instead, and rightfully so, he has woven together a specifically human and humane story that unavoidably brings back the feelings of helplessness and terror that each audience member went through on 9/11. On the ground, the FAA workers and air traffic controllers struggle to make sense of what is going on, incorrectly reporting at the time of the chaos up to six hijacked planes in the air. They are seen not as inadequate in their fields, only ill-equipped to handle an unforeseen emergency of such magnitude. Other small but crucial details gradually come into focus that hit home. Following the plane crash into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., for example, reports spread that there is also a fire on the Mallsomething that we as viewers surely remember, but know turned out to be a false rumor.
Back on Flight 93, taking off from Newark and headed for San Francisco, there are no main characters or action movie-style heroes, only a group of authentically realized people frightened beyond belief who nonetheless gather the courage to do whatever possible to save both themselves and the innocent lives being targeted on the ground. Strangers brought together by tragic circumstances, their interactions with each other and their last-minute calls to home when they realize they may never see their loved ones again are filled with urgency and breathtaking poignancy.
When the passengers, who have slowly learned of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks through their communication with family, finally decide to retaliate and storm the cockpit, plans take shape that never come to pass. A passenger on board who happens to be a pilot agrees to try and take control of the plane once they get into the cockpita well-meaning notion all the more heartbreaking because we already know the outcome. In the end, these brave people do overcome the four terrorists and their religious-based master planfor what it's worth, also seen in a straightforward, fair lightbut are not so lucky themselves. At 10:03 a.m., United Flight 93 crashed in an open field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Superbly shot and directed as it is, did "United 93" need to be made in the year 2006? That is a question without an answer. As conceived of for the screen, there isn't much new information exposed that wasn't already recounted in greater detail on the outstanding 2005 documentary, "Inside 9/11." Still, in years to come, with generations of people who were not yet born in 2001, "United 93" will stand as an extraordinary, eye-opening testament to a tragic chapter of American history that should always be acknowledged and remembered. As for those of us who were around on that beautiful and unsuspecting mid-September morning, our presumptions of homeland safety shattered in an instant, the film will remind us never to forget. Achingly intimate and startlingly violent when it needs to be, "United 93" is in no way an easy motion picture, but it is a cathartic one, displaying rays of hope and courage even in the face of the most dire and potentially hopeless of circumstances.