April 28, 2006
United States/United Kingdom (English)
Written and Directed by Paul Greengrass
Few films reach the intensity and accuracy on display in United 93. This is a deeply emotional film-watching experience, one that remembers those onboard and reminds those down below.
It is unfortunate that many of us remember where we were twelve years ago this day. We remember because it was a date of tragedy. We remember where we were when we first heard the news. And it was over before a lot of us even knew it, well underway when the TV crews showed up with their camera. Done in the morning, a country left in mourning, and we’ve been talking about it ever since.
United 93 begins with the hijackers of that very flight praying upon the floor of their hotel room. They simply look like well-groomed college students, maybe foreign, but who can tell? As an audience we realize what we are seeing and are caught by the scenario. Chances are it gets you in the gut, or in the throat if its fast enough. That feeling lasts until the plane comes frantically and spiraling down into a Pennsylvania field.
The well-known account is powerful, but it is the potency of the filmmaking that does this trick: The ambient score by John Powell, the unending hand-held cinematography by Barry Ackroyd, and the entire precision as overseen by John Greengrass, who directed United 93 between his second and third installments of the Bourne trilogy. The system is turned on from the get-go (tremble, bass, hook, line and sinker) and is turned up until it breaks into the silence leading to the closing credits. “United 93” could be a textbook for film scholars on how to carefully ramp up tension and grab your viewers by the collar, but to that end it would seem a disservice for its true and more noble intentions.
It is obvious, but worth noting, that no stars headline this film. Probably not a necessity, but it offers no distractions. Instead we are with these ordinary people who we can more easily relate to, no matter how saddening and difficult that prospect might be. The filmmakers even arranged for some of those on the ground to play themselves, such as Ben Sliney of the Federal Aviation Administration. Can you imagine reliving your worst day at work again and again for the duration of the shooting? That day also happened to be his first as one of the National Operation Managers. These casting choices only add to the realism of the elements involved.
Made five years after the events of September 11, 2001, this film turns the statistics of this particular tragedy’s fatalities from “40 plus 4 hijackers” to “44 people.” For some a movie like United 93 will always be too soon, but I consider it to be a earnest-and-honest document of what took place on that day. We erect stone slabs and build buildings as monuments and memorials, but I consider films (which are tremendous group projects of their own) to be among our most touching tributes. United 93 is such a film.
J.S. writes about all things film over on The Film Tome. Enter the tome and you will find reviews, news, trailer analyses, lists, essays, an official podcast and more.