Judge Jennifer Malkowski didn't find anything in United 93 that would lend itself to a light little blurb, but she did find an excellent retelling of a painful story.
Our review of United 93 (Blu-ray), published August 29th, 2011, is also available.
On September 11th, one of the darkest days in our history, 40 ordinary people sat down as strangers and stood up as one.
British Writer/Director Paul Greengrass takes on America's national tragedy a highly realistic—and, significantly, highly moving—9/11 story that blends fiction and documentary techniques to reach some truth about the events onboard United Airlines Flight 93.
Facts of the Case
It seems like everyone living in our post-9/11 world has a basic grasp on "the facts of the case" here: of the four planes hijacked that day, Flight 93 was the only one not to hit its intended target. The reason it crash-landed in rural Pennsylvania rather than into the White House was because the passengers and crew mounted an assault against the hijackers, effectively grounding the plane and sacrificing their own lives in the process.
United 93 tells the story of the title flight in (mostly) real time and also depicts the as-it-happened response to the hijackings in various air traffic control centers and military command centers throughout the Eastern seaboard.
I don't watch a lot of 9/11 programming. I've avoided the news channel specials each September, the tear-jerking prime-time interviews with family members, and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. As a liberal, I think I quickly came to associate the human tragedy of September 11th with the ways the events that day were used for political maneuvering (not much) later. My knee-jerk suspicious reaction to swelling violins over images of firefighters with American flags has perhaps limited my ability to really emotionally connect with the very real loss so many people suffered that day. Watching United 93, I felt that loss more fully than I ever have before. By resisting political rhetoric—from either wing—and Hollywood's best tricks for emotional manipulation, Greengrass is able to more directly communicate the painful and inspiring nature of that flight's story. After all—as everyone involved in the production stresses—these things really did happen, to the best of our knowledge. And they are so incredibly moving and terrifying that they require no emotional back-up from overwrought musical scores or smooth, sweeping camera motions—nor do they benefit from the spin politically-minded people persistently put on them.
First and foremost, United 93 is a movie about the gut-wrenching triumph of that flight's passengers and crew over the terrorists who took control of it. The way these people "stood up as one" and accomplished what they did is the emotional heart of the film, and the part that prods us most to identify with what we see. Inevitably, one wonders how one would have responded to being awakened from a nap in seat 27D by a terrorist hijacking, imagining a last call to loved ones to say goodbye or working up the courage to charge the guy with a knife and a bomb glaring menacingly 10 rows up. Greengrass makes it easy to imagine these things by casting and directing an incredible group of unknown actors. I believed every fearful cry, every mumbled obscenity, and every bead of sweat on these people's foreheads. Aided by documentary camera techniques, real-time shooting, and what sounds like a very serious and reverent on-set atmosphere, the men and women in this film truly inhabit what we all imagine those moments to have been like. There are few exceptions. One is the occasional narrative symmetry that disrupts the realistic atmosphere, as when everyone on the plane decides to pray at the same moment. The other is the fact that, before the hijacking, everyone on this flight is so very cheerful. Was it really so different to fly before 9/11? Whenever I take an early-morning cross-country flight on a Tuesday, I sense high levels of grouchiness or apathy from my fellow passengers. But I guess it would be hard to see these passengers in such a light, even if it were realistic, with the knowledge of what they were about to be fatally swept into and the knowledge that the families they left behind will be carefully watching this film, too.
While the passengers' story is a mixture of fear and triumph, the parallel tale of what was happening on the ground is in many ways more unsettling as a picture of chaos and futility. Away from the willful heroism on the airplane, Greengrass explores the terrifying breakdown of the complex systems that we thought would protect us. Greengrass articulates this theme of the film, and the day itself, best:
"Our modern life is about systems. Systems support us in our modernity, and it's those systems that were overwhelmed on 9/11…This thing was unimagined and unimaginable. And as it unfolded, people were slow—that's not a criticism of them, but people found it hard to understand what was truly occurring."
Knowing what we do about the reality of the situation, but remembering our own shock and disbelief even after seeing the images of the smoking first tower, it is painful and humbling to watch these officials try to grasp the situation, at first in the most casual interactions:
Military Employee: "I've got a hijack on the phone. It's
Reactions are similar through all the chains of responsibility. Ben Sliney, the FAA National Operations manager who is the most distinct character in this half of the film as he plays himself, proceeds with a business-as-usual meeting after hearing about a possible hijacking. He mentions it to his colleagues, who comment mildly that "we haven't had a hijacking in, what, 20 years?" As the situation becomes more and more serious, we, along with Ben, realize the impossibility of controlling this kind of crisis from within the confines of such an enormous, sprawling system of planes—around 4,200 of them were in American airspace after the second hijacked one hit the towers. The power to stop this tragedy appears so dispersed and decentralized and the communication among branches of government and military seems so inefficient that one marvels that even more damage was not done that day. News of the first hit in the film spreads so slowly and haphazardly that some of the most important figures in this system find out about it by simply looking out their window and seeing smoke—a bitterly manual operation in the midst of a technological nightmare. The two stories—on the ground and in the air—only connect in the briefest of moments: a few lines of text flashing on the pilots' screen minutes before their cockpit is overwhelmed, "Beware cockpit intrusion. Two aircraft hit World Trade Center." The inevitable failure of that lone communication to convey the enormous reality of the situation yanks us back to another moment of painful disbelief very late in the film, as we truly feel the tragic too-little-too-lateness of this attempt.
As the flight goes down in a relentless swirling up of farmland through the window of a chaotic cockpit, there is no clear message imparted about what we should be feeling. Admiration, bitterness, triumph, loss, catharsis, or fear are some of the myriad possibilities, but Greengrass leaves us to make our own choices rather than imposing a moralizing narration or epilogue or blanketing these final images and sounds in a tear-jerking score. Through his commentary track, we come to better understand what we already sensed about his approach to this film: "We all shared this mission that if we could create a film that allowed an audience to walk through 9/11 at eye level, that that would give us some basis for evaluating this enormously important event." That eye-level, unbiased realism is evidenced by many of the very mature choices Greengrass makes about the film, particularly his bold use of a mix of real flight attendants, air traffic controllers, and military personnel who were involved in the events of 9/11. In addition to being a fascinating form of therapy for those who lived through it, it also adds a level of realism to the film that is hard to overestimate. The tone of Greengrass's commentary is contemplative and reverent, which mostly works well. He has some real insights into the many powerful resonances of the events and images of September 11th, as in his summation of the conflict as one between "modernity and medievalism," with the stark contrast between the emblematic skyline of New York City and the "medieval religious rapture" of the terrorists. The commentary track also provides some much needed notes about the sources Greengrass used to craft this script, including the 9/11 Commission report, the last will and testament of one of the hijackers, and direct interactions with people like Ben Sliney. Greengrass admits some minor lapses into "mythology" rather than proven facts, particularly in the last assault onboard Flight 93; for instance, experts doubt the ability of the charging passengers to run up all the way up the aisle pushing a beverage cart.
The two other significant special features are sizable on-screen biographies of each of the 40 passengers and crew onboard, each lovingly written by family and friends. There is also an hour-long documentary feature, "United 93: The Families and the Film," which gets deeper into the process the actors went through to become their characters and the participation of the families of those killed in the making of the film. Rhetorically, this feature serves as an affirmation of the film's emotional sensitivity, making sure that we know the 9/11 families supported it and that they didn't think it was "too soon" to tell this story. Politics aside, the feature is quite touching and well worth watching for the unusual situation it explores: grieving people forming real bonds with actors playing their dead loved ones. The tears of uncanny recognition from the family members, and the tears of the actors that testify to their real emotional investment in the project, are moving. What would have completed this package of substantive extras is a little more about the production itself and the factual sources Greengrass drew on. When a docudrama like this feels so real, it is the responsibility of the filmmakers to thoroughly show audiences the various ways that it is, and is not, "real."
Stylistically, I have already praised Greengrass for the way he manages image and sound in this film, but Universal also deserves acknowledgment for an excellent transfer, complete with lots of language and sound options. Unfortunately, you might need the subtitles they provide, as the dialogue tends to be muddy, particularly in the first third of the film.
Playing like the best possible film version of a portion of the 9/11 Commission's report, Greengrass's United 93 perfectly straddles the realms of profound emotion and unsettling factual information that characterize the events of that day. As forceful as it is balanced, the film manages to hit us in the gut and the brain simultaneously, and without most of the Hollywood techniques that turn other 9/11 stories into the most troubling kind of melodramas.
United 93 is hereby acquitted of all charges normally leveled against 9/11 storytelling. It will likely prove to be the very best film about those events of our generation.
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• "United 93: The Families and the Film"
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