Judge Clark Douglas remains in awe of this moving, truthful film.
Our review of United 93, published October 30th, 2006, 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.
"We have to do something; they are not going to land this plane."
Facts of the Case
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, four planes were hijacked by Muslim terrorists intent on crashing the planes into key American locations. Only one of those four places, United Airlines Flight 93, did not reach its intended destination. United 93 details the frantic atmosphere of that morning and the brave actions of the passengers onboard that flight.
We all remember where we were and what we were doing on September 11th when we heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I was about to leave for work when I was called into the living room. I dropped in momentarily and caught a few brief, disturbing images before I was forced to head out the door. I worked at a restaurant at the time, and customers urgently provided me with updates over the course of the day. A second plane had hit the other tower. The towers had collapsed. There had been an explosion at the pentagon. World War III was starting, or something along those lines. All flights were being cancelled. The nervous, jittery, atmosphere of the day is something I still recall vividly, along with the strange feelings of unity we all felt. Suddenly we weren't employees and customers; we were just a group of Americans waiting to find out what the hell was happening.
I mention this memory not merely because I am writing a review of a 9/11-themed film, but because United 93 is a film which will undoubtedly bring your own memories of that day into sharp focus. This is largely because it is a film which is always in the present tense (save for a few sentences of end credits text); one which works hard to recapture not only what happened on 9/11 but precisely what it felt like. There is a moment in the film in which we witness the second plane hit the World Trade Center. Director Paul Greengrass delivers that moment in such a natural, understated, unforced manner that it makes you feel as if you're witnessing everything all over again.
Greengrass is best-known as the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, but United 93 feels like the movie he was born to make. His matter-of-fact sensibilities and his signature "controlled chaos" visual style perfectly suit the material. While Greengrass' other films tend to have angry political edges, United 93 has no partisan agenda up its sleeve. This is not a film which looks back in hindsight and makes judgment calls; it grants us absolutely no more perspective than what the people in the film would have had at the time. Many filmmakers have attempted to create "you-are-there" experiences while constantly providing us with reminders that we're actually outsiders looking in. United 93 never makes that mistake.
Everything we learn about the characters in the film comes from simply observing the actions of everyone involved over the course of a few hours. There are no backstories, no contrived monologues to provide greater context or understanding, and no convenient subtitles listing names and positions of the many FAA and military officials involved. Everyone is desperately attempting to gain information and determine which step to take, and Greengrass spends a good deal of time (as all of these people did) on the moments of misunderstanding and confusion.
The film wisely limits the action to three central areas; shutting out the larger picture of what was going on. In painstakingly recreated detail, we see what's happening with the FAA, with a collection of military officials and the people aboard United 93. Greengrass doesn't employ any movie stars or even well-known character actors, though you'll probably recognize a few of the faces scattered throughout the film (Gregg Henry, Christian Clemmenson, Olivia Thirlby, etc.). Additionally, real-life flight attendants, military men and FAA employees (including a handful of folks playing themselves) are mixed in seamlessly with the seasoned pros for the sake of further adding to the authenticity of the proceedings. The acting in the film is selfless from top to bottom; no one shows off or turns in a distracting "performance." It would have been so easy to turn this story into an overheated melodrama or a cheap, emotionally exploitative experience, but instead we've been given something deeply truthful. The reckless, unsentimental speed with which United 93 veers towards its climax is harrowingly effective; enhancing the level of tension and emotional punch of the inevitable finish.
This Blu-ray release marks the second time I've seen United 93. I saw it in the theatre back in 2006 and was intensely affected by it. At that time, I proclaimed it was the best film of the year. However, the emotional experience the film provided was so overbearing that I just couldn't work up the nerve to return to it. Watching it a second time, I was once again riveted. I continue to believe that it's the finest film of 2006 and one of the best of the past decade. Even so, it will probably be quite some time before I return to it again. I can't recommend it highly enough, and yet I advise you to proceed with caution. It's ferociously potent tribute to those who lost their lives on 9/11, but its strength is considerable enough to ruin the rest of your day.
United 93 has received a solid 1080p/2.35:1 Blu-ray release, allowing viewers to further appreciate the immense amount of work Greengrass has put into recreating the details of these events. Detail is quite strong throughout and black levels are satisfyingly deep. There's a pretty heavy layer of grain present throughout, but that doesn't do anything to harm Greengrass' gritty brand of filmmaking. Audio is where this release really excels, as the chaotic sound design is given a very strong mix which really allows you to get feel surrounded by the desperate frenzy of the assorted locations. The score by John Powell is admirably subtle (no heart-tugging, sweeping string themes to be heard here), but its insistent low brass and percussion instrumentation occasionally reaches throbbing levels which will really rattle your speaker system. The cacophony of dialogue is clear and well-captured. Supplements are repeated from the previous DVD release: a commentary with Greengrass, some in-depth featurettes ("United 93: The Families and the Film," "Chasing Planes: Witnesses to 9/11" and "Twin Towers"), some memorial pages for all of the United 93 passengers and a piece spotlighting the Flight 93 National Memorial. The disc is also equipped with BD-Live and Pocket Blu.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This Blu-ray has a release date of September 6th, 2011—just five days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The film was released in theaters in theaters in April of 2006 and released on DVD several weeks after September 11th had passed, wisely avoiding the easy trap of trying to cash in on the amplified emotions people might be feeling around that particular date. However, this Blu-ray release (while not technically dubbed an "Anniversary Edition" or anything like that) is indeed making that mistake, as Universal apparently feels that the American public is now capable of tolerating such shameless marketing maneuvers. It's a tacky move which kind of sours the hi-def release of this great film.
Blu-ray release date issues aside, United 93 remains the definitive 9/11 film. It's hard to imagine another filmmaker ever coming close to recapturing the emotional power, technical skill and respectful lack of sensationalism Greengrass delivers. It's not an easy film to watch, but it's absolutely essential viewing for everyone old enough to appreciate what it has to offer.
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