September 11, 2001. Four commercial airliners were hijacked by terrorists to be used as weapons against the United States. Only one didn't reach its intended target - "United 93."
Writer/director Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Supremacy") has wormed his audience's way into the midst of human tragedy before with "Bloody Sunday," his recounting of the 1972 massacre of Derry protestors by British troops. "United 93" gets similar treatment, yet doesn't have the impact of the earlier film. While it cannot help but have extremely effective moments given its subject matter, the first film to tackle 9/11 plays more like a quality television reenactment than a cinematic docudrama. Greengrass is most effective in how he injects the mundane with profundity.
As the four terrorists, all distinctly different and separate characters, prepare in their hotel room with various levels of conviction and dread, the day to day operations of an airline's preparation for a flight now looks like the construction of a missile guided bomb. The director and his editors Clare Douglas ("Bloody Sunday") and Christopher Rouse ("The Bourne Supremacy") then balance their film by switching between the air traffic control centers that first witness the day's events unfold - Boston, New Jersey and Cincinnati, along with the FAA in Hernon, VA, whose operations manager, Ben Sliney, was literally starting his first day after a job promotion and who plays himself in the film.
The suspected hijacking of AA 11 is reported by a Logan airport controller who hears someone speaking in a foreign language over his headset. Initially, this report is treated with a bit of skepticism, but when CNN reports that a 'small plane' has hit one of the towers, Sliney calls for on site military and the NorthEast Air Defense Sector interrupts its planned simulation training to monitor a real life emergency. It is not until the film's forty-five minute mark that Greengrass begins to fold in the experience of being onboard United's flight 93.
A few of the most unnamed characters stand out. Lewis Alsamari as the tentative hijacking leader, Saeed Al Ghamdi, puts a human face on the Muslim extremists (his "Ich liebe dich" over his cell phone at the airline gate reminds us that this was the terrorist in love with a beautiful German girlfriend - his story was fictionalized by another British director, Antonia Bird, in "The Hamburg Cell"). Christian Clemenson ("Mighty Joe Young," "Lost & Found") is Thomas E. Burnett, Jr., the United passenger who the actor shows controlling his fear by taking action, organizing the resistance initiated by Todd Beamer's (David Alan Basche, "War of the Worlds") understated 'Let's roll." Trish Gates exemplifies a stewardess bravely remembering her training even while the horrific events playing out make her break down in tears. Patrick St. Esprit gives us the picture of frustration as the N.E.A.D.S military officer who cannot believe he cannot get two jets from Otis AFB into Manhattan air space in time.
Cinematography by Ken Loach regular Barry Ackroyd ("Sweet Sixteen," "Ae Fond Kiss") is of the shaky, handheld variety and while the film doesn't look special in any way, even the lighting underscores the irony of just how beautiful the weather was on that Tuesday. The plane's interior is bathed in the unnaturally white light that only seems to exist at sunny altitudes.
with all due respect to the families and friends who lost love ones on that day, watching "United 93" was not quite the gut wrenching experience I had anticipated and I was disappointed with the extremely obvious choice Greengrass makes to end his film. What he has done, however, is make us question anew - is George W. Bush's government prepared to defend this country? And why over the ages have humankind committed such atrocities in the name of God?
It has been nearly five years since the devastation wrought by the terror attack on America on that fateful date – 9/11/2001. Because of that assault, the country (right or wrong) is embroiled in an ever-expanding war. But, we need to remember the people directly involved that day and writer/director Paul Greengrass does an outstanding job telling the story of “United 93.”
Some say it is too soon to talk about the personal events that occurred during those brief hours that changed America and the world. I disagree. It is a courageous thing to break this icy layer that hermetically seals 9/11 and Paul Greengrass is the first to show that courage in his depiction of one facet of the many that went on that warm September morning. His selection of United Airlines flight 93 as his subject proves to be a gripping story of fanaticism, fear, heroism and the human animal in all its shadings.
Shown in real time, the film begins with a flying panorama of the Boston skyline at dawn. It is a foreshadowing of coming events and the tone of “United 93” is set. The action is matter-of-fact as people go about the usual day-to-day business: getting ready for the workday, eating breakfast, commuting, waiting in a ticket line, checking luggage. It’s a normal start to a normal day. But, for 19 Arab terrorists, it is the beginning of a day that will bring them glory and delivery into the hands of Allah.
The scenes flash, with intricate and exciting editing by Clare Douglas and Christopher Rouse, from the darkness of the FAA air traffic control center for New York to the flight deck of flight 93 and its cabin as the attendants get the passengers settled down for their long journey, then to the first class section where the four armed terrorists wait for their moment. The tension builds - for you the viewer, not for the players on the screen who are blithely ignorant of what is about to happen - as the inevitable and well-documented events play themselves out.
Helmer and scribe Peter Greengrass shows a master’s touch as he unfolds the story of “United 93” in a realistic docudrama that is truly a jaw clenching experience. His assured direction is complemented on all levels of the production. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd keeps his cameras tight and fluid when the action begins in earnest and the hijackers make their move. From that moment to its sudden end, things take on a breakneck pace as the film jumps back and forth.
As in the first half of the film – jumping back and forth between the FAA, the military air traffic control center, the tower at La Guardia and aboard flight 93 – we get the different points of view of all the players in this true life drama. But, once things take their terrible turn, the tension is escalated up a notch as the terrorists spring their plan. When the take control of the fight deck, one of them holds the detonator button of a bomb, keeping the passengers at bay while his colleagues replace the murdered pilots and change the destination of the flight.
The tension continues its inexorable march as the passengers use air phones and cell phones to call their loved ones. As word gets out about the plight of flight 93, word also filters in about the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon attacks. It strikes the passengers and crew like a sledgehammer when they realize that they are not political prisoners of the hijackers but a part of a suicide mission. Galvanized, the able bodied passengers understand they have no choice but to stop the deadly operation. Ordinary people are called upon to do the extraordinary.
The huge cast of mostly unknowns does an incredible job in giving verisimilitude to the passengers, crew, terrorists, the FAA and military controllers and all the rest. As the events begin and the hijackings become obvious, the air controllers are tense but cool around the collar. Then, the first plane hits the north tower and all hell breaks loose. Suddenly, it’s chaos incarnate as successively higher up officials are brought into the tragedy that eventually caused every airport in the United States to be immediately shut down. The military, fully prepared to launch fighter planes to stop any further attacks, is hamstrung by a system that allows only the president to give such an order. It was a day when the entire nation became a victim.
The bravery of the passengers, the fanaticism and deadly dedication of the hijackers, the confusion on the ground and the efforts to make sense out of the senseless are terrifically rendered. Greengrass and his cast and crew unflinchingly tell a story that some would rather forget for the pain it has caused so many. But, I think that the time is ripe for such a document and the filmmakers should be applauded for their daring and conviction. They draw a picture of people as heroes who volunteer in the fight for what’s right.
United 93” is not an easy movie to watch but, like a witness to a horrible accident, you can’t take your eyes off of it. There is much food for thought to be digested here and this film will stay with you for a long time, just like the real event it depicts. I give it an A-.
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