A film review by Craig J. Koban

RANK: # 1

RANK: # 1

UNITED 93 jjjj

2006, R, 90 mins.

Capt. Jason Dahl: J.J. Johnson / Ben Sliney: Himself / Col. Robert Marr: Gregg Henry / Todd Beamer: David Alan Basche / Thomas Burnett: Christian Clemenson / Jean Hoadley Peterson: Becky London / Sandra Bradshaw: Trish Gates / Mark Bingham: Cheyenne Jackson / Mark Rothenberg: Chip Zien

Written and directed by Paul Greengrass

Like many that remember precisely where they were on the day of November 22, 1963 when JFK was assassinated, I most certainly can recall exactly where I was during the fateful and tragic day of September 11, 2001.  I was a teaching intern, training to be a secondary educator in a small town in my home province of Saskatchewan and was on my way to the school very early in the morning.  The instant I entered the staff lounge a few student colleagues of mine grabbed me by the arm and pitifully stated, “They hit New York and they hit the Pentagon in Washington!” 

At that moment, I was startled.  I had no clue specifically as to "who" may have committed these atrocities.  I further recall all classes being shut down for the day while the entire school presided in the gymnasium to watch CNN coverage of the events.  Of course, we all watched with a level of dreadful eagerness, skepticism, and disbelief.  I am sure that many of us shook our heads in utter astonishment and simply could not accept the horrific turn of events that we witnessed on screen.  What vile and vicious group of souls could ever commit murder on such a massive level and to what ultimate cause?  Obviously - despite knowing full well the players involved now - I still find myself asking why this happened.

It’s incredible how hindsight works.  While I was in that school gymnasium - transfixed to the screens and wanting to drink in every detail of the tragedy – it never occurred to me how fundamentally our world would change in the next few years.  It’s surprising how different the world was pre-9/11.  This was a time before rigid airport security, before The Patriot Act, before the word “terrorist” became a part of our socio-political lexicon, before Al Qaeda, and before Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden.   Perhaps even more noteworthy is the fact that –while I watched the CNN coverage of the World Trade Center burning to the ground and the Pentagon erupting in flames - I never once felt that I would be in a movie theatre a mere five years later watching a drama recapturing this dark day in history.

All of this prologue, of course, brings me to Paul Greengrass’ UNITED 93.  Before I discuss the film I probably should spend some time in dealing with the film’s more prevailing controversial overtones.  UNITED 93 is the first major big-screen, Hollywood financed work that chronicles 9/11 and it obviously begs the question, “Is it too soon for a film like this to be released?”  The short answer is this - it could not come any sooner.

Honestly, what is the statue of limitations for a film to be released that is a historical recounting of a terrible incident in our past?  Five years?  Ten Years?  Fifty years?  Who really has a good answer?  Some think that it is unreservedly dreadful for the Hollywood movie machine to even contemplate revisiting 9/11 for any type of entertainment purposes.  Furthermore, even more have started debating the notion of how art walks the dangerous ground between sensitivity and utter exploitation.  There is an undeniable fine line that needs to be crossed here, but UNITED 93 is not exploitation.  More importantly, it should be noted that Greengrass’ film does not – in any way shape or form – open up fairly fresh wounds that are only starting to heal.  His film merely addresses these wounds and tries to deal with them openly.

As I left the theatre after screening the film I was certain that this is a masterpiece that needs to be seen by absolutely everyone.  I don’t say that to pummel any families out there that may have been victims of this nightmare into therapy.  Yet, UNITED 93 is the type of honest, faithful, and unquestionably powerful historical film that audiences need to sit through to see the power that the art form of cinema has in terms of transporting us back to an event without making any broad, political statements.  UNITED 93 is not Greengrass’ critical commentary on the various 9/11 players involved.  It is not a film with an agenda; it’s a stirring, gut-wrenchingly frank, and unsettling recreation of one catastrophic autumn day nearly five years ago. 

UNITED 93 just may be one of the greatest works that involve historical recreation that I have ever seen.  It rings with such an eerie verisimilitude and grittiness that you find it necessary to remind yourself that you are not watching a documentary.  This is filmmaking at its most visceral, powerful, and ethereal.  UNITED 93 is simply an extraordinary and courageous achievement, one that works with such an indescribable and immeasurable strength that watching all other contemporary films may feel trite by comparison. 

Greengrass does not pander down to us; he does not sensationalize; he does not exploit; and he does not find ways to make this film more audience friendly for larger mainstream consumption.  Because of this, he comes across now as one of the bravest filmmakers around.  There could have been a devious zeal by many other lesser talents out there to take this material and ultimately trivialize it.  I cringe at the thought of what other filmmakers could have made out of this subject matter.  UNITED 93 comes from a sensitive and endearing heart and never has time to offend viewers (as many out there probably feared) with subplots and characters that border on frivolity.  No other film that I have seen has the courage and undying willingness to look at a painful, past incident and explore it with compassion and propriety. 

Yes, UNITED 93 is a harsh, brutal, and unflinching account that made me come close to tears and turn my eyes away from the screen, but this is a necessary film.  We needed this film to come out to remind us of the power, will, and collective, selfless heroism that the common man can bring themselves to in the direst of circumstances.  Yet, the film does not glorify its heroes nor demonize its villains.  It simply works on us for primeval impact and it hits its mark with such a calculating authority. 

All other future (and past) historical, fact based films will be held in comparison to this one.  Revisiting such films, like the abortive Michael Bay war melodrama PEARL HARBOR and James Cameron’s TITANIC,  simply will not be the same.  In retrospect, those two films exploit their tragedies for the sake of making a great escapist popcorn entertainment.  PEARL HARBOR especially commits the very cinematic sin that filmgoers feared would make UNITED 93 a shameful experience.  Bay’s film trivialized its calamity; that film seemed more about detailing how a love triangle was interrupted by a disastrous Japanese sneak attack that deeply wounded the American consciousness in World War II.  It makes me feel eternally grateful that Greengrass does not make the same inhuman mistake here.  Even postulating a Michael Bay-helmed UNITED 93 makes me ill.

Thankfully, UNITED 93 is an anti-establishment historical film, which is ironic since it was backed by Universal Pictures.  It has no main or even secondary characters.  There is no major “story” or plot that plods along from Act one to Act two and finally to a resolving Act three.  It does not absolutely vilify the villains nor does it force the heroism of the “heroes” to disgustingly saccharine levels.  Nope, there is a clear masterful brilliance to Greengrass' aesthetic handling of the film.  UNITED 93 plays off like a pseudo-documentary.  It’s not overly flashy, it’s shot loose and tight, and the “characters” themselves are not played by any name actors whatsoever.  Greengrass purposely got unfamiliar faces to play the roles as to not distract the audience.  This is key to the film’s ultimate value as a stridently authoritative piece of realistic movie making.  A star name (ala Tom Cruise) would have ruined the effect entirely.  Instead, we don’t have time to let our minds drift with the cognitive baggage of who’s playing whom and to what effect.  UNITED 93 makes you instinctively feel like a fly on the wall; it's as if I was a witness to the events all over again.

The eye for detail is absolutely impeccable in this film.  Greengrass’s guerrilla approach captures the period perfectly.  The fact that he actually uses some of the original airline traffic controllers playing themselves helps to a large degree.  Ben Sliney, who actually headed the FAA National centre in 2001, plays himself in the film and this also furthers the film’s heightened realism.  There are also no lame, ham-infested subplots to sidetrack us.  There’s no romance between workers at the airline, no stories involving sick passengers that need to get to their destinations for life saving surgery, no…ah…you get the point.  This is one of the truly evocative films that does not actually try for any character development at all.  It’s all about impact.  Everyone in the film lives in the moment without back-stories or history.

Also, consider the film’s surprisingly objective portrayal of the hijackers themselves.  UNITED 93 opens with them praying and reading the Koran in their hotel rooms, prepping themselves for their Holy War mission to come.  They are not presented as monsters.  There is a twisted humanity to these men in the sense that we see their remarkable unease that they display while they undertake their mission.  However, Greengrass is not going out of his way to sympathize with these men nor is he trying to paint them as one-dimensional villains.  Incredibly, he presents them as normal people no different than the valiant passengers that overtook them later.  This is not to say that these men should not be shunned for their unspeakably cruel and inhuman actions, but the film’s handling of them is precisely correct.  These are ordinary people that just so happen to be wrapped up in a warped sense of divine self-righteousness.  They are blindsided by a cause that owns their souls and are on a spiritual course to the death.  Their story is tragic too.

As for the rest of the events and personas of the film?  Well, it should be noted that Greengrass only focuses on the United Airlines Flight 93 (a trilogy of films would be needed to cover all of the individual tragedies of 9/11; perhaps Oliver Stone’s upcoming WORLD TRADE CENTER will effectively deal with the stories of “ground zero”).  The other planes that crashed into the Pentagon and the Trade Center buildings are covered, but they are a backdrop to the tale of Flight 93.  The early scenes of the film have a perpetual and unnerving sense of normalcy.  People get out of taxis and prepare to get ready to board their planes.  Stewardesses arrive to ensure that things go smoothly for the passengers en route.  Pilots check their instruments in the cockpit. There is some idle chitchat between various people. Some airline workers cheerfully discuss vacation planes.  Others talk about the weather.  Some are on their cell phones contemplating business deals.  Again, UNITED 93 does not concern itself with moronic little stories within the “big story.”  It’s all about being there…in the moment. 

Greengrass intercuts the scenes of the planes with moments that involve the FAA headquarters, air traffic control centers around the U.S. in Boston, New York, and Cleveland, as well as NORAD.  There is such an enveloping authenticity to these scenes.  These men and women (as portrayed) speak to each other in shoptalk and the effect is uncanny.  It’s almost like the footage was not recreated and that Greengrass transported himself back to these locations to capture the people handling 9/11 in the moment.  We see it all – the early morning routines of all of these workers and how their day soon spirals out of control into a mass state of confusion, misunderstanding, and disbelief.  When the air traffic controllers see the first plane hit the Trade Center, they wonder and postulate the causes.  When they see the second plane hit, they seem as stunned as we were when we saw it on TV. 

This film chronicles the level of hysterical confusion of all the participants.  The air traffic controllers were confused in the sense that they had no protocol with how to deal with multiple hijackings (which might have accounted for why they did not immediately ground Flight 93 in the first place; the fact that the plane took off after the first plane hit the Trade Center is unrelentingly scary).  NORAD was confused because they had no idea as to the correct rules of engagement for hijacked planes nearing civilian centers.  It also appeared utterly hopeless in terms of the amount of improper communication channels between civilian and military authorities.  Ben Sliney could be labeled as one of the biggest heroes of 9/11 in the way he decided to ground all airlines that day.  It was a bold and gutsy move (it cost the airlines millions), but his motive was simple and noble – to possibly saves thousands of lives.

The final moments of the film deal with the passengers of Flight 93 realizing the gravity of their situation.  Confusion permeates their plight as well.  Is the bomb on one of the terrorists real or just a decoy?  Are the terrorists flying them back to a runway or are they going to crash into another prominent building?  With that in mind, will they be able to overcome the terrorists and commandeer the plane to safety?  The notion that the passengers even contemplated there inevitable actions in the midst of being paralyzed with fear is astounding. 

Of course, we know very little of what actually happened on board.  In terms of records, we have cell phone conversations that passengers made to their loved ones and we basically know that they subdued the terrorists enough to allow them to miss their course for the White House.  We also know – unfortunately – that they all died as a result of their gallant efforts.  Even with Greengrass filling in the dramatic events, the final minutes of the film are unconditionally tense and suspenseful.  As the doomed passengers make their way to the cockpit to confront the last of the kidnappers, I felt so many emotions.  I deeply respected the chaotic reality of their situation and their willingness to do anything they could to save their lives.  Also, seeing these men and women combat a foe that they knew nothing about with repercussions that will probably lead to their deaths also rings as terribly sad.  Either way, their collective act should be celebrated and they deserve to be honored.

The film could be labeled as beyond anti-climatic, but that nitpicking misses the point.  UNITED 93 is about prevailing and escalating dread.  We feel so vigorously for these people; we want to jump up and tell them all not to get on the plane.  The film is an ultimate endurance test and for some it may be too much and too soon.  However,  UNITED 93 does such an uncanny job of telling an overwhelming story to which we accurately know the outcome before even entering the theatre.  No other recent fictional thriller held me to me seat in silence and alarming anticipation the way this fact-based film did. 

At first glance, Greengrass (a Brit) may seem like the last person to tell a story of a decidedly American disaster.  Yet, his keen and astute compassion for the subject matter and the unforced manner with which he lets the story unfold are remarkably confident.  This is one of the most heartbreaking and sobering experiences I have had in a Cineplex, and that is to Greengrass’ ultimate credit.  UNITED 93 is harrowing, intense, agonizing, and nearly unwatchable at key moments, but Greengrass’ work here is one the reminds us of the command of the movies.  They can be dignified, passionate, and have something important to say.  Anyone that feels that the cinema cannot have any of these characteristics should be forced to see UNITED 93.

I will very loosely paraphrase the past words of one film critic – the late Gene Siskel – by saying that I will not see a better film in 2006 after viewing UNITED 93.  Greengrass’ unimaginably visceral and hypnotic docudrama of the horrendous events of 9/11 is a monumental achievement for the British filmmaker.  After making popcorn entertainments like THE BOURNE SUPREMACY and other historical works like BLOODY SUNDAY, Greengrass can now proudly take ranks among the directorial elite.  In an age where witless and infantile films sensationalize history for the sake of making a buck, UNITED 93 reminds people of the significant stories that can be told with equal parts restraint, solemnity, vigorousness, and truthfulness.

Some will still debate that this film takes us to places we simply don’t want to go to again quite so soon.  Yet, maybe we need to go to these places again…perhaps for understanding…perhaps for compassion…or maybe perhaps merely for closure.   Regardless of where one lies with the pros and cons of this film’s motivations, there should be no denying what an inescapable testament UNITED 93 is to heroism and a fitting and heartfelt eulogy it is to those that perished.  No film in 2006…in 2007…or perhaps any other time in the future…will shake people up as forcefully as this one does.  It’s simply an unforgettable film-going experience and perhaps the only film to be truly indicative of our current decade.  There was no need to wait any longer and debate any further – this film deserves to be seen now, not later.

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