That’s the cry that went up when the trailer for Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” was released a few months back. It’s “too soon” to reenact the September 11th attacks, we were told. Too soon to dramatize (and potentially trivialize) the sacrifices made on that day. Too soon to make a big budget movie about an event that still haunts a sizeable portion of the American population. While I don’t personally feel that to be the case, those of you who do can rest assured that Greengrass has put forth a fine effort, eschewing hysterics and refusing to pander to those who would prefer a propaganda exercise to a serious film. The end result is a profoundly moving and intense experience that shoves the audience’s nose into events that are still painfully raw for many of us, but does so with virtually no polemicizing or political agenda.
United #93 was the one flight hijacked on September 11th that didn’t reach its intended target. The most widely accepted version of what happened aboard the plane is that several passengers, learning of the previous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon through air and cell phone calls to people on the ground, stormed the plane’s cockpit in an effort to retake control. Early reports that they’d actually gained entry were later proven to be false. Regardless, the hijackers were most likely forced to abort their mission by “augering in,” to use the Chuck Yeager parlance, near Shanksville, PA.
The film’s subdued opening sequence, showing the four hijackers praying in their hotel on the eve of the attacks, gives us a little time to reflect on what’s coming. From there, it’s on to Newark Airport and the usual morning tumult as commuters and travelers prepare to board. Most of the film’s first two acts, however, are set in the air traffic control centers of Boston and New York City and the military’s East Coast air defense center. There, controllers first learn of the hijackings. They initially react with bemusement (“Haven’t had one of those in a long time,” muses one), and then with dawning shock and horror as the hijackers’ ultimate intentions are made clear. The sense of anxiety at what is to come is palpable, but I have to admit that the events themselves – culled from cockpit recordings, call transcripts, and interviews with the ground personnel – are wholly engrossing.
And exhausting, as it turns out. Greengrass never lets up, switching back and forth between the various centers and flight 93 until the movie’s first real pause, which comes as the various principals stare mutely at the aftermath of the second plane hitting the WTC.
The film’s effectiveness is heightened by the use of many of the actual air traffic controllers on duty that day, and the casting of largely unknown actors as the passengers. Not having Bruce Willis or Eric Bana charging down the aisle contributes greatly to “United 93’s” realism, even if – in all honesty – we have no way of knowing what really happened in those final minutes.
Again, there’s no editorializing about the terrorists’ motives or the passengers’ nobility. The hijackers aren’t inhuman supermen, merely fanatics who are also vulnerable to doubt and fear. The passengers act out of desperation, not bravado, doing the only thing they can think of to stop further disaster. And although we know how things are going to end, Greengrass skillfully engages us and keeps tensions high until the inevitable conclusion.
How do you recommend a movie that begins with an undercurrent of anticipatory dread and amps it up until it becomes almost unbearable to watch? People have compared making “United 93” to producing a movie about the Titanic, except that 9-11 took place less than five years ago, and almost all of it played out in real-time on our big screen TVs. No one over the age of ten will be unable to relate to the events playing onscreen, which makes Greengrass’ achievement that much more impressive. And while you won’t feel like waving flags or joining in Homer Simpsonesque chants of “USA!” after seeing “United 93,” see it you should. You’re unlikely to come across a more powerful film this year.