Review: United 93

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 were devastating to the U.S. landscape, the government, and the citizens. In the five years since the catastrophic event, strident media outlets and politicians have taken the sensitivity of 9/11 and perverted it to fit their own means and agendas. "United 93" (IMDb listing) isn't just another antiseptic deconstruction of buildings destroyed or far off countries invaded; it's a film that gives the tragedy back to the innocent lives angrily taken away, and returns a human factor to the day that changed America forever.

Most moviegoers have been turned off by the very idea of a picture dramatizing 9/11, much less one built on a good chunk of pure speculation. I can understand these feelings, and agree with them to a certain point. What "United 93" avoids right from the opening minutes is customary Hollywood tomfoolery. The film isn't an Irwin Allen disaster film spectacle, nor is it an Oliver Stone-style expedition into conspiracy and deceit (though Stone has his own film with "World Trade Center," due this August). Director Paul Greengrass ("Bloody Sunday," "The Bourne Supremacy") endeavors to find a shape to 9/11, exploring the chaos of the event, and keeping his focus on the people in the planes and the witnesses on the ground to give new insights into this mammoth slice of recent history.

The film cuts between two stories: the situation in the FAA headquarters and a government military base, and onboard the flight of United 93: the one plane that did not hit its intended target, instead crashing into a Pennsylvania field. Greengrass recreates the initial terror and confusion of the hijackings with alarming, gut wrenching reality. Depicted initially as potentially fraudulent, the horror of the hijacking comes booming down on airline officials when three planes soon go off course and become unresponsive to contact. The action then turns to the government response, which, in the pure state of chaos, failed to come together fast enough. Truthfully, they never had a prayer to stop the inevitable. As top officials were unable to reach the President or his staff for direct orders, the men and women on the ground were left to scramble against red tape for answers as the planes started to hit their intended targets.

Yes, there is footage of the World Trade Center collisions. Greengrass manages to turn this iconic yet trampled moment into an eye-popping experience all over again, playing it hauntingly against the stunned reactions of the airport workers and the FAA administration, which were left speechless and in overwhelming disbelief. What could've been yet another abuse of available footage is instead used to make a direct point about the madness commencing, and lends the film a bookmark of horror that needs to be witnessed to appreciate what was about to occur next: the flight of United 93.

Greengrass devotes the other half of the film to this story, taking the flight from one of routine (i.e. breakfast, small talk between passengers, crew safety checklists) to heart-stopping fear as the Muslim fundamentalist terrorists swiftly seize control of the plane. The sequences inside the airplane are achieved through the director's preferred use of handheld camerawork (not nearly as obnoxious as in his previous films), improvisational dialog, and a mixture of amateur and professional actors. Greengrass keeps his actors in a brutally wrenching state of panic on both sides of the conflict, leaving little room to break character through inexperience or melodrama.

A complicated subject within "United 93" is the suggestion of impartiality. Greengrass doesn't completely vilify the terrorists, but their behavior doesn't reach much beyond prayers, knives, and sweaty, silent looks. They are portrayed as violent, brutal men with a strategic target to be achieved at all costs, leaving their attention to the cockpit, not the passengers. Greengrass doesn't try to soft-pedal their viciousness, and depicts the murder of the pilots and flight attendants vividly, but never grotesquely. Fearful of their final destination, yet absorbed in their belief that their actions are in perfect step with their God, the terrorists are not given the same depth as the passengers, who are generally viewed as shell-shocked, yet thinking, alert individuals.

What I admired most about "United 93" is the theme that heroism, while an important consideration, wasn't the engine that drove the passengers to revolt. Greengrass' film instead explores the thirst for survival, illustrating the point that the ultimate failure of United 93 to meet its target wasn't to protect Washington. The uprising occurred so that the mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters onboard would be able to see their families again; a pure expression of hope. These select few (Greengrass does show the passengers unwilling to fight back as well) were not going to be complicit in this blueprint for mass murder, and took a chance that maybe they could alter the objective of the terrorists to see another day. It's survival witnessed in the purest form and the most claustrophobic location.

The final fifteen minutes of "United 93" are an icy shock to the system: feverish, frantic, and harrowing. You almost want to halt the film to prevent the agony from occurring all over again. Watching the passengers make their ultimate move on the terrorists incites feelings of immeasurable heartbreak and enormous anger that refuses to abandon the system long after the film has screened. What we have with "United 93" is a masterpiece of focused historical tone almost unheard of these days. As difficult as it is to even consider watching it, this is a truly must-see motion picture, and another important piece in the continuing comprehension of what took place that ordinary September morning.

Filmfodder Grade: A