Directed by Paul Greengrass | Universal | 93 minutes
Starring: J.J. Johnson, Gary Commock, Polly Adams, Opal Alladin, Nancy McDoniel, Starla Benford, Trish Gates, Simon Poland, Khalid Abdalla, David Alan Basche, Lisa Colón-Zayas, Meghan Heffern, Olivia Thirlby, Cheyenne Jackson
Controversy has swirled around the release of United 93, the movie depicting the events that led to the crash of the fourth plane hijacked on September 11, 2001. It has been called the most controversial movie of 2006 by Entertainment Weekly, and the trailer was pulled from a New York theater after viewers complained. Commentators have cringed, convinced that a film depicting the events of 9/11 will draw upsetting conclusions about what happened and why. They could not be more mistaken. United 93 is a gripping and powerful film, although it refuses to present comfortable interpretations of what happened. Through inspired casting and deft direction, Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy) lets the events speak for themselves.
Greengrass chose largely unknown actors in order to paint the most realistic picture possible, and his efforts paid off. The actors collectively exude a commonality, an “everyman” quality that resonates with the audience. The passengers and crew of United 93 possess a striking resemblance to anonymous family, friends, and fellow passengers, lending an unsettling feeling of normality to what we know will soon become disastrous. For the first portion of the movie these unknown people go through the mundane motions of modern travel, with the sounds of seatbelts buckling and overhead bins latching shut. The audience is slowly but forcefully drawn into the cabin of United 93 for the duration of the flight.
As the terrorists’ plot unfolds, the film follows the reactions on the ground from those responsible for monitoring airline security. Adding to the believability is the fact that many of the main players, from the civilian FAA Command Center to the military’s Northeast Air Defense Sector, play themselves in the film. These real-life participants portray the shock, confusion, and disbelief that ruled much of the morning. The people who lived through those harrowing hours do not shy away from that reality in reliving them. United 93 did not lift off until nearly 20 minutes after authorities had reports that American Airlines Flight 11 had been highjacked. What if authorities had assessed the threat more quickly? The film helps to explain why those in charge were so confused and responded so slowly.
Like the passengers and crew, the four terrorists are remarkably nondescript, although their characters are slightly more developed. They are not caricatures, nor are they portrayed with additional malice or sympathy. They require none. These men apparently overcame great fear to do what they believe their God and culture told them they must, and they paid the ultimate price. As with the rest of the film, their actions are shown rather than explained.
The destruction of the World Trade Center achieves an even greater impact through unfamiliarity. Soon after September 11, the American media deemed the most horrifying footage of the day’s events too much for public consumption. As a result, many people who saw those images dozens of times in the hours immediately following have not seen them once in the five years since. The sight of Flight 175 exploding into the South Tower brought gasps in the theater. This impact will likely be lessened for international audiences, who have not had these terrible images kept from them for so long.
This artificial separation from the raw reality of 9/11 is long past by the time the movie reaches its climax. The tension builds and the drama unfolds towards its terrible conclusion. But in bringing the audience to the close of the story, United 93 does not allow its energy to be cabined into formulaic or stylised violence. The confrontation is brutal, personal, and believable. It is also largely conjecture. Greengrass was painstaking in his interviews with the families of those on board, and had only sparse phone records and the transcript of the cockpit recorder from which to craft the details of the dénouement. As he moves from firm factual ground into what is only reasonable speculation, he is careful not to give into creative fantasy. The outcome is appropriately frantic, confusing, and ultimately ambiguous.
It is its frank simplicity that makes United 93 so troubling — and so valuable. The film is a Rorschach test of sorts, a canvas on which viewers must draw their own conclusions. It is not surprising that watching a struggle to the death between the hijackers and the passengers is intimidating to many moviegoers. Those who believe that pain, sacrifice, and death are discomforts to be avoided rather than embraced may see nothing more than senseless death and tragedy. Those looking to explain or justify the terrorist attacks will likely object to the depiction of those responsible. Some critics have even taken issue with the movie’s honesty. Dana Stevens, Slate’s movie critic, criticised the film’s “almost maddening neutrality,” and in light of this criticism frustratingly asks “Why was this film made, and why was it made now?” Stevens found in Greengrass’s approach an “attempt to cover all bases” that “leaves the film feeling not complex, but simply muddled.”
This misses the point. United 93 is grounded in the reality of what happened on September 11. The courage of the passengers marked the end of the terrorists’ plot and the beginning of America’s response. If there is any conclusion that Greengrass draws for us it is that terror can be an invitation to bravery. The best these very ordinary people could hope for was to survive. But whatever happened, they were ready to sacrifice themselves so that others would survive. Their gallantry is an image of how the US sees its struggle with terrorism — as a war for survival. And that is what makes United 93 such an important film.
Philip O’Beirne is an attorney living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.