United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)


Polly Adams (Deborah Welsh), Opal Alladin (CeeCee Lyles), Trish Gates (Sandra Bradshaw), Nancy McDoniel (Lorraine G. Bay), David Alan Basche (Todd Beamer), Ben Sliney (Himself). Screenplay by Paul Greengrass. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Rating: 15. Running time: 106 minutes.

United 93 opens in a way I’ve grown to hate about the movies: it shows us some seemingly obligatory shots of the New York skyline. The difference, of course, is that this time we know it’s the morning on which that skyline was attacked, and it’s the day the lives of the people down on the ground there were thrown into chaos. The shots are set to the sound of the Koran being recited by one of the men who was soon to hijack the fourth plane on September 11th, the one that never reached its likely target of Washington’s White House or Capitol because of the heroic efforts of its passengers to stop the terrorists in their tracks. The image feels bizarrely paradoxical. The sight of Manhattan’s high rise buildings to the sound of Arabic chanting represents the starkest and most purposeful of contrasts, and it sets the tone perfectly for the type of horrific emotion United 93 will force us to feel, without reservation, for its forthcoming 100 minutes.

Admittedly, and quite strangely, the character development towards the beginning is suspect. As the day’s situation is set up we get dialogue between air hostesses who ‘miss their babies,’ pilots looking forward to some future days off and a passenger just making it onto the plane the film focuses on, the plane we know will take him to his death. It feels obvious, but it has to be asked what choice Greengrass has but to set the scene like this. The alternative is to just dive into footage of the plane taking off, which would be even more obvious in its crap-cutting and avoiding of the fact that 9/11 was a normal day in its very early hours. He evidently wanted to tell the day exactly as it was, reflected no moreso in the fact that most of the people we see in the National Air Traffic Control Centre aren’t actors at all, but the people that work their themselves, reenacting their manic and completely unexpected day. And this really is the point: it was completely and utterly unforeseen, and on what would appear to be a normal sunny morning people involved with aviation would be saying to each other that they can expect a good day for the East Coast.

What Greengrass is interested in showing us, then, is both what a situation like this onboard the plane would exactly look like, as news comes through by phone that the Twin Towers have been hit, and the passengers onboard work out their plane is being controlled with a similar project in mind; alongside interspersed footage of the equally important real-time operational reaction of various aviation and military authorities across the United States, who had no idea what they were dealing with and could do little else but watch on their monitors as the tragedy unfolded. The most truly shocking scene of this sort unfolds in New York, as the men tracking one of the descending Downtown-bound planes first see it on their GPS tracking monitor, and then through their window as they observe that historic happening unfold before their eyes.

What’s so incredible here in United 93 is that there’s a real fluency to its horror and complete panic, and we feel completely like we’ve been hurled back to that day and are really observing what people had to go through. Some of its really nice touches, if that’s the way to describe them, come as we see aviation authorities in the midst of the mayhem seem convinced two planes were destined to crash in midair, something that obviously never happened. We’re also told of how the Sears tower in Chicago amongst other buildings was unnecessarily evacuated, as panic mode set in and multiple planes were suspected of being hijacked that never in fact were. It’s attention to detail like this that ensures United 93 always feels perfectly natural and real.

As it goes on, the dialogue no longer feels soft. It feels perfect and it feels absolutely horrible. Nothing could possibly allow us to appreciate what the families and victims caught up in that day would have gone through, and still live through and will continue to live through for the rest of their lives. But United 93 comes about as close as is humanly possible to letting us feel what they will have felt, and any suspicions of artificial sentimentality, or, at the other extreme, cheap thrills being made out of this event, are soon dispelled by the mastery with which Greengrass executes his project. The film makes Fahrenheit 9/11 feel like a disgrace. We’re completely submersed, and no longer feel like any of the political reactions following on from this day were opportunistic in the slightest. The emotion is simply too touchingly painful to not justify it. This is a truly incredible achievement, in a film that had such a huge responsibility to get it just right.

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