United 93 (2006): Paul Greengrass’ Touching Chronicle of 9/11 Tragedy

No movie, no matter what its subject matter is, should be above critical scrutiny, and so I regret to report that, despite honorable intent, “United 93,” Hollywood’s first major movie about 9/11, is a respectful recreation of the tragic event.

Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” may be one of the toughest, if not outright impossible, movies to review in dispassionate ways. Yet the feature is meant as artistic entertainment and thus should be subjected to all the rules of criticism we apply to other films.

The movie elicits mixed feelings and raises a number of significant questions about dramatizing tragedies for entertainment purposes. Is the movie too much Is the movie too soon Is the American public ready to see 9/11 films How much fictionalization is tolerable for dramatic purposes What’s the “proper” way to commemorate national disasters In others words, “United 93” raises serious issues about real politics and reel politics, about the politics of representation and politics of entertainment.

As writer and director, Greengrass ultra-concern for authentic recreation of the horrendous experience, and his sensitivity to honor both the heroic passengers and their loved ones who survived, has made a gut-wrenching movie that, despite visceral cinema verite style, is curiously detached as far as emotional engagement is concerned.

Some of the film’s flaws could be attributed to the limitations within which it was made. As is known, this project was endorsed and benefited from the support of the surviving families, which were made part of the filmmaking process.

There have been at least two TV shows about the subject: A&E’s “Flight 93” (which I saw) and the Discovery Channel’s docudrama “The Flight That Fought Back” (which I did not). The ratings for both shows were good, indicating the public’s curiosity and eagerness to relive the 9/11 ordeal on screen. I have no doubts that there will be other films and TV programs about “United 93.”

Let me make a couple of qualifications before I analyze the film qua film. First and foremost, “United 93” is not a must-see film and viewing it should not be positioned as an act of patriotism. We each have our own ways of expressing anger and grief over tragedies that are both personal and national.

My first reaction to “United 93” is that it’s more effective as a reminder than memorial of that fateful morning, when innocent passengers embarked on United 93 from Newark to San Francisco, in one of the four airplanes that were hijacked by terrorists. More importantly, I don’t think that Greengrass mythologizes the passengers by elevating them to the level of heroic saints. No, what’s most impressive about the film is how down to earth, how factual it is, refraining at all costs from melodrama and sentiment even when the situations call for it.

Nonetheless, the extraordinary restraint, the attention to minutia detail, the dozens aviation and military personnel (some playing themselves) in the cast, and the lack of individual characters turn “United 93” into a peculiar movie experience that hovers between docudrama and feature, between sociology and cinema. Whether this hybrid and mixture of styles is successful is ultimately up to you, dear readers, to decide.

With a running time of 111 minutes, the film is roughly divided into four parts (this is my segmentation of the plot) that are unequal in duration and intensity. The first, weakest, and most familiar part details the preparations for the flight. The second depicts the first segment of the flight, when all’s quiet, or almost quiet, since we viewers know that the terrorists have also boarded the plane. The third part kicks the saga into action, when the hijackers kill the two pilots and one passenger and the flight’s occupants realize they’re witnessing suicide bombers. And the last, most harrowing, part concerns the passengers’ call to action (“Let’s roll”) and takeover of the flight, resulting in a crash that Greengrass, out of discretion, opts not to show. The movie ends appropriately on a silent note.

Unfolding in real time, once the plane is airborne, the movie opens with the terrorists going through their morning prayers and passengers and crew preparing for another routine flight, engaging in mundane chat that suggests just another ordinary day. We are greeted with an announcement that it’s a beautiful day on the East Coast.

The film’s only cut-aways are from the flight to the various Air Traffic Control Centers. The exchanges are one-sided: Greengrass avoids showing the reaction of friends and relatives on the ground, as some of the TV shows have, despite the fact that at least 10 minutes are devoted to frantic calls the passengers made via cell and air phones to the “outside world,” either to alert about the attack, or to bid farewell to loved ones at home.

The action shifts back and force between the passengers, military personnel at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), and air traffic controllers in New York, Boston, Rome (and other places). At first, the controllers don’t grasp that a hijacking is in progress; one says it’s been ages since the last incident had occurred.

The movie’s first haunting image is when the second plane crashes into the World Trade Center, and an officer at NEADS claims he’s unable to defend the Eastern seaboard with only four fighter planes. Though refraining from offering any explanation, “United 93” suggests professional misconduct and improper communication between the various authorities.

It’s roughly an hour into the film before the hijackers brutally leap into action, slaying the pilots and a random passenger. A man named Thomas E. Burnett (Christian Clemenson) is the first to recognize that flight 93 is a suicide mission and something must be done quickly. With the help of other passengers and the flying attendants, they rally together to retake the plane with the primitive weapons at hand.

Narrativley and cinematically, the film’s most exciting sequences capture the overwhelming chaos on the plane, when the passengers realize what’s going on. It may be a reflection of my sociological background, but it’s mesmerizing to observe how an aggregate of strangers begin to coalesce into a primary social group. How through primitive channels of interpersonal communication–whispering vital information from row to row, deciding on agenda and action lines, grabbing and killing two of the terroriststhe passengers fought back, which and led to the aircraft crash in the fields of Pennsylvania.

As he has shown in his previous films (the superb “Bloody Sunday,” about the 1972 British-Irish bloodbath), Greengras is an expert at making tense, documentary-style drama that methodically builds suspense and horror. Using a jittery and restless camera, Greengrass goes out of his way not to make a TV-Movie like feaure. In this respect, his effort is successful: The movie is taut and ultra-realistic, with the reel time devoted to the flight close to the real-time of the experience.

Employing a hyper-realistic style and fast pacing, Greengrass has said that he wanted to put the movie-viewers on the flight so that they experience viscerally what the passengers must have during those 81 minutes. (See interview with Greengrass). Hence, throughout the movie, we get brief images and snippets of dialogue that usually take place while flying.

That much of the ensemble is a “non-name” cast, and some get to replay their real-life roles on screen, add to the movie’s unflinchingly rawness. Among those apprearing as themselves are Ben Sliney, the Federal Aviation Administration’s national operations manager, an adviser on the film who began his job on Sept. 11, and NEADS Major James Fox. (See my piece about the casting of “United 93”).

Since no one knows what exactly happened, the film represents an informed speculation, based on meticulous research and cumulative evidence over the past four years, with some inferences made and composites constructed for dramatic effect. Occasionally, the movie departs from the facts as presented in the 9/11 Commission Report and the black-box tapes played at the Moussaoui trial.

Largely letting the story speaks for itself, Greengrass has made a realistically chaotic and deliberately shapeless movie. Yet considering the reality it depicts, the onscreen violence in is properly gruesome but neither excessively graphic nor gratuitous.

“United 93” end with a dedication to all those who lost their lives on Sept. 11. However, a couple of postscripts are annoying and should raise some serious questions. For example, the note that the military defied the President’s order at 10:18am to engage the flight, and that it t took about two hours for all air traffic, in and out of the U.S., to be shut down.

While watching “United 93” I experienced conflicted feelings that may explain my mixed evaluation of the movie. On the one hand, I was eager to see the details, how exactly it happened, hoping for another ending even though I knew the tragedy is pre-ordained. Then, as the movie progresses towards its predictable doom, perhaps humanly and inevitably, I kept telling myself, “It could have been me and my family.”

From the beginning, Flight 93, the one plane that failed to strike its target due to the passengers’ courage, has been veiled in a mixture of tragedy, myth, heroism, and manipulative propaganda by the Bush administration, which used the storyd as a symbol of American’s heroism in the face of disaster.

Ultimately, “United 93” may be less of a testament to courage than to primal survival instincts, an uplifitng affirmation of the passengers’–and our–indefatigable will to live.

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