It is almost a miracle that this film was made. Or, at least, made the way that it was.
United 93 somehow, some way, resisted every temptation the evil gods of cinema dangle in front of every team of Hollywood writers and directors, and even some that are specifically engineered to tempt teams putting together disaster movies. Overdramatizing, underlining, hero-making, demonizing and villifying, grandstanding, monologuing, sappy back stories, sappier relationship subplots, babies and dogs, all of these were somehow resisted by writer/director Paul Greengrass. Either that or he fought off studio executives who may have tried to force those things upon the film, I'm not sure which.
Most of you well know what this film was about, the ill-fated flight of United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001, the only plane that terrible day that didn't reach its intended destination: the US Capitol. It is also well-known that information gathered from the airplane's cockpit recorder suggests that the mission failure was in large part due to the passenger rebellion that ended in them storming the cockpit by smashing a drink cart against the door. What is not known, for certain, is what transpired on the flight in between what we know from the flight recording and what was said by passengers who'd made phone calls from the plane. Filling in these gaps realistically and respectfully and without falling back on typical Hollywood idioms was probably Greengrass' greatest challenge. And I think he was up to it. Furthermore, I do not think it was possible, even without knowing what exactly happened on the flight, that the film could have been more accurate than it was. His guesses, when he had to make them, I feel were good ones.
Oh, be quiet, conspiracy theorists. Quit trying to interrupt me.
Now where was I? Oh yes.
One of the most intriguing things about this film was that it was, more or less, at least from the point where the flight took off, done in real time. That is, there were no fast-forwards or interruptions with flashbacks or fantasy sequences. I would assume that Greengrass figured in exactly how much time passed between takeoff and the crash but that I cannot confirm. Anyway, by using real time, unrecognizable but skilled actors, and no back stories, he really puts you on that plane. In other words, you don’t have an omniscient point of view – you don’t learn anything more about any of the passengers than you would have if you had been on the plane yourself. This aspect of the film may be its most brilliant, for which much kudos should go to Mr. Greengrass.
The same things can also be said for the scenes that take place at Air Traffic Control or the military command center. In fact, he effectively places you in every scene of the movie. You are never floating above it at all. If you could somehow forget the events of 9/11 you would find out what is going on right along with the characters; you would make all the realizations – as well as the mistakes – about the events playing out right along with the cast. You get to essentially bathe in the confusion of that ill-fated morning and – dare I say – even enjoy running around the proverbial hamster maze with them (as much as one can enjoy a movie about such tragic and true events).
In contrast, the end of the movie, even though you know what’s coming, is gut-wrenching to say the least. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that the passengers band together, try to bash open the cockpit door with the cart, get into the cockpit… but do not wrest the controls away from the terrorists in time to stop the plane’s fast descent straight down into the ground. And right as the ground is about to rush up and smash into you and everybody else in the cockpit, it goes black. Again, even at the very, very end, you have no omniscience. That is, depending on your religious beliefs or lack thereof, probably exactly what you would have seen if you, too, were there. There was no exciting Jerry Bruckheimer yellow and orange fireballs, no loud THX explosion rocking the speakers. Just a cut to black, followed by somber music before the credits.
One of the controversies about the film is that some people were upset that the terrorists weren’t depicted evil enough. I found that to be an absurd complaint, to say the least. Greengrass tried to depict everybody, even the hijackers, as human beings. There was always question about why that mission failed, what took so long for the hijackers to take control of the plane. The reason, Greengrass explored in the film, was that head-hijacker Ziad Jarrah (well played by actor Khalid Abdalla) was hesitant and had to psych himself up (“It’s not the right time,” he kept having to repeat to his partners in crime). And they were accurately portrayed in a panicky “Oh shit!” mode when they realized the passengers had had enough, which ratcheted up when they killed one of the hijackers, realized the bomb was a fake, and went for the drink cart. There was no need to put effort into portraying them evil. If you believe that hijacking a plane and killing hundreds of people in one fell swoop is evil, then they’re evil. Paul Greengrass let their actions speak for themselves; there was no need for leering, evil gleams in eyes, or “I’m going to kill you all and this is why and how, and look how evil I am” monologues.
Concurrently, there was, tragically, unfortunately, no Bruce Willis hero to kill all the bad guys and save the day. The film was, for better or for worse, as close to real life as Greengrass could possibly depict it.
Released: April 28, 2006
Written and Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Cast: J.J. Johnson
- Captain Jason Dahl; Gary Commock
- First Officer LeRoy Homer; Opal Alladin
- CeeCee Lyles
; David Alan Basche
- Todd Beamer
; Peter Hermann
- Jeremy Glick; Khalid Abdalla
- Ziad Jarrah
; Lewis Alsamari
- Saeed Al Ghamdi
; Omar Berdouni
- Ahmed Al Haznawi
; Jamie Harding
- Ahmed Al Nami
: R (rating reportedly being appealed)