Most CQ readers know that I love films, and I often see provocative movies for the purpose of evaluating them. Munich was one such film that I probably would not have bothered to see otherwise, at least not in the theaters. Oddly, I felt the same trepidation with United 93, but for completely different reasons. I had no real fear that the movie had been politically skewed; I just wasn’t eager to relive the attacks of 9/11. Nevertheless, this afternoon the First Mate and I both attended the matinee at our local theater, and while we both were glad to have seen it, we also won’t see it again soon.
Paul Greengrass, who wrote and directed the film, should be commended for his brilliant documentary style and his decision to avoid using well-known actors. People may recognize one or two of the cast from other films, especially David Rasche, who once played the lead in the television series “Sledge Hammer!” However, the use of relative unknowns heightens the gritty, realistic style employed by Greengrass in both the cinematography and direction. Conversations appear natural in control centers, airports, and in the plane itself prior to the hijacking. This natural style underscores the shock of what begins to unfold almost immediately in the movie.
The movie opens with a black screen and the sound of prayers in Arabic. The first scene shows the United 93 cell completing their ablutions, shaving themselves, reviewing the Qu’ran, and embracing each other before leaving for their mission. This provides a shock for the audience, and a reminder of the nature of the attackers. I could hear the audience fall quiet immediately; the effect is startling and powerful. It immediately brings the viewer back to 9/11, a bright and clear day across an entire nation that had no idea what was about to hit it.
United 93, some will remember, was the last flight to take off on September 11th. Airport delays held the plane on the ground for a half-hour, during which time air traffic control centers started noticing strange events. American 11 stopped responding, but not before a controller heard “something not American” over the radio. While ATC supervisors pulled the tape, other centers began noting events outside of the routine. As the film goes along, the tension builds in the control centers and in the military control center that planned a military exercise off the Atlantic coast, but soon found itself frustrated by the reports of hijackings and confusion about which flights had been hijacked.
All the while, we keep coming back to United 93 and its passengers and crew. Even while we see the Twin Towers explode, United 93 continues in its bubble, blithely unaware of the danger it faces until it hits. The tension builds only for the four al-Qaeda terrorists, who await a propitious moment to launch their attack. When it comes, it gets bloody; the film pulls no punches in this regard. The two pilots are stabbed to death on screen, and the flight attendant who attempted to comply with the hijackers gets her throat slit while the two terrorists on the flight deck offer prayers for their efforts. We see one passenger get stabbed during the initial attack, and more follows.
One of the difficult issues in reconstructing a historical event where all witnesses to it have died is to make it believable and to fit the facts, a challenge which Greengrass masters. He avoids heroic speeches and flawless heroes. Everyone aboard that flight could have been someone who has sat next to me on any other flight. Some passengers cried, some got irate, and some of both quickly surmised that they would not survive if they did nothing to stop the hijackers.
A criticism I have seen about this film has been the amount of time spent on other venues than United 93 (although I consciously tried to avoid reading any critiques before seeing the movie). I disagree; I think that the wider focus on the frustration, anger, and anxiety in the control centers helps the movie in two distinct ways. First, it allows the audience to remember the context of United 93 in the course of 9/11, making the timing easier to understand. More importantly, when the passengers finally rally and start to plan the attack, the amount of time left in which to do something comes as a shock to everyone. Rasche, who plays civilian pilot and passenger Donald Greene, tells the group that the plane is flying too low to allow the hijackers much more time, and that the counterattack had to separate them from the controls immediately. Any attempt to dive would not allow enough time to pull up.
That time frame could not be overcome, although the movie shows the passengers reaching the cockpit and engaging the terrorists on the flight deck. The last images of United 93 come from the cockpit window, where the Pennsylvania countryside spins ever close to the plane, until the screen suddenly goes black.
Brilliant. Brilliant, and yet almost unbearably sad.
I believe that everyone should see this film, but not because of any political point of view. In fact, the film steers away from engaging politics at all, not even regarding the Islamist nature of the attacks, and that’s as it should be. No one depicted in this movie really knew of that aspect of 9/11 during the attack, or what it meant. The only reference to what would follow is a statement by the FAA operations manager Ben Sliney (playing himself) ordering all planes in the US to be grounded and all international traffic turned away because “we’re at war with someone out there”. No other reference is made to anything happening after 12:06 ET on 9/11.
The reason we all should see this film, at least once, is for the passengers of United 93. Alone, frightened, and under the knife, they stood up and fought back. They died trying to beat the terrorists and made clear that we would not go quietly. We owe them for their sacrifice and the lives they undoubtedly saved in their desperate attempt to regain control of United 93. That, I am absolutely certain, is something which will unite most Americans regardless of how we feel about what came afterwards.
Addendum: Someone needs to scold the normally excellent folks at IMDB. One of the categories in which they’ve placed this film is “Fantasy”.
UPDATE: I had hoped that this movie (and this review) could escape partisan cheap shots, but according to my referral log, it’s not the case. Let me explain what “spoilers” mean for the neuron-challenged. At IMDB, where I have posted a number of reviews over the years, it is considered bad form to reveal any particularly important point about a movie, and not just the ending. People add “** SPOILERS**” to note that the review contains these items, so that people who want to avoid knowing them do not read the review. (Sometimes they’re also in the body of the post, which I didn’t do here.) Since I note that the film shows the passengers stabbing one of the hijackers and actually reaching the cockpit and fighting for the controls, I thought I’d be polite and add that tag. Also, the opening sequence is so striking that hearing about it beforehand might take away some of its power, but that was a more minor characterization.
Most readers with any sense of perspective would have realized this, but I forgot that certain sites which specialize in namecalling over actual argument would need this spelled out for them.