United 93 (2006)

"United 93."

Written and directed by Paul Greengrass. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Greengrass, Lloyd Levin. Music by John Powell. Photographed by Barry Ackroyd. Edited by Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson, Christopher Rouse. Production designed by Dominic Watkins. Starring J.J. Johnson, Ben Sliney, Gregg Henry, David Alan Basche, Christian Clemenson, Becky London, Trish Gates, Cheyenne Jackson, Chip Zien.

In a way, Paul Greengrass’ United 93 is nothing but pure filmmaking. It starts from modest beginnings, and climaxes with nothing less than a foregone conclusion, one that still burns in our nation’s collective mind even a full decade after the fact. In between those two points, it weaves a narrative that we are aware is a dramatization, but presents it so skillfully that we do not care. In structure the film is a straightforward attempt to chronicle, minute by minute, the terrible events of September 11, 2001, told from dual perspectives–those of authority figures on the ground and a group of passengers in one particular plane that learned of the tragedy occurring around them, had the time to act, and found the courage to do so. The movie gathers tension, dread and yes, suspense, even though in our heart of hearts, we know how it ends. Oh yes, we know.

In another way, United 93 is a living monument to the many that died on that awful day, one that brings honor to their memory. One could imagine a lesser filmmaker taking these events and trivializing them by turning them into the backdrop for a shallow Hollywood action film. Perhaps one with trite character development, maybe even a love story. Perhaps something like Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, which was released in summer 2001 and, after the 9/11 attacks, looked even more like the insulting comic book version of a tragedy that it was.  That is not the film that Greengrass made. Instead, he made one that uses detail and nuance to gain power, and also one that doesn’t strain for poetry or false effect. The movie has no grandstanding, no statements, no phony stuff. It simply records what it sees.

Greengrass’ approach is crucial to the film’s impact. It follows several people through the events of September 11, and establishes them well enough that they are made recognizable when we cut back to them…and yet we learn very little about them. It’s almost as if we ourselves are passengers on that plane, and are sitting next to these people with only a passing interest in them. And really, what else is needed for these characters? Background details? Chit-chat? For what purpose? Are we compelled to know obscure facts about a man in order to mourn his death, or appreciate his sacrifice? Of course not. The tragedy that ultimately swallows these individuals transcends all biography and personality. The film’s most distinctive characters are, arguably, the hijackers themselves and the air traffic controllers we meet on the ground, and that is simply because they are singularly defined by the skill with which they perform their respective jobs.

Greengrass’ film is essentially a docudrama, told by a born documentarian. Greengrass proved in the 2002 film Bloody Sunday (about the 1972 Irish civil rights protest march) that he is an expert in transmuting tragedy into craft without exploiting it, and he proves it again here. The film’s direction and screenplay (also by Greengrass) perhaps do not give sense to the madness of September 11. How could they? But they do give it shape, and bestow a sense of escalation that captures what it must have felt like on that day, as trained professionals dealt with an impossible crisis, while terrified civilians chose to die together rather than be used as a weapon to kill others. Greengrass’ camera is not shy about capturing emotion, but limits it to fragments, and keeps everything believably reserved.

The movie builds little details gradually, ominously. It starts as two Arabic men, Ahmed al-Nami (Jamie Harding) and Ahmed al-Haznawi (Omar Berdouni), pray in a hotel room and prepare for their mission. They are nervous. Scared, even. This choice to humanizers these enablers of destruction is referenced often in the movie, as the hijackers we see regularly are depicted as frightened men with an unshakable faith, which feels correct. It may anger some, while watching United 93, to see the individuals who caused the day’s events to be treated so even-handedly, but certainly if we are to correctly process the tragedy of 9/11, we must reflect that these suicide missions were helmed by men, not monsters.

We soon expand our perspective. We arrive at Newark airport, as the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 unknowingly prepare for their final hours. We see pilots and flight attendants going about their pre-flight business. We casually meet some people in air traffic control rooms in New York, Boston and Cleveland. We go to Herndon, Virginia, where FAA Operations Director Ben Sliney (Himself) goes about his first day on the job, and much of it is mundane: meetings, status reports, budget discussions. Elsewhere in New York state, the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) plans for a day of military exercises. That this was a normal day goes without saying, but the film is not in a hurry to get to the drama. It eases us into the jargon and politics of these rooms, makes us feel bizarrely comfortable, curious about the details. We almost feel safe. But we are not.

The day starts to build with ominous portents. American Airlines Flight 11 goes into radio silence, and the film captures the air traffic controllers responding with growing frustration and fear. Suspicious sounds are heard on radio, signifying a hijacking, which is an idea met with incredulity. In a sequence that toys with our expectations of what a traditional thriller would deliver, the tapes of the eerie transmission are pulled and analyzed again and again and again, with answers finally coming later, because the film is essentially happening in real time. And later, Flight 11 almost collides with a jet, in a scene that plays entirely on radar scenes and people’s faces, and is nonetheless gripping.

Then comes the terrible moment, signaled by an air traffic control scene where one blip completely disappears. Gone. We don’t actually witness the impact of the first plane into the World Trade Center, we simply see people noticing that something is wrong when smoke starts pouring from the North Tower. In a telling statement of how quickly the media age operates, the FAA turns on CNN in order to get information on what is happening to their own planes. Discussions in the control rooms spin into wild half-guesses. No one even knows which plane is now lost. Or what kind of plane. Was it even Flight 11? Soon United Airlines Flight 175 hits the South Tower, and the acting and camerawork feels rough and unrehearsed, as if everyone is simply channeling the raw emotion at that very instant on that very day. The entire sequence is highly disturbing, but nowhere near as disturbing as a regular movie would be if it had artlessly exploited this scene for profit.

At once, everyone springs into action, although they are all uncertain what actions to take. Communication within the FAA and Air Force (and between each other) is frustratingly uneven, so much so that a group of fighter jets ends up getting scrambled over the Atlantic. Clearance to enter New York City airspace is refused. More planes go quiet. Some are even false alarms. Another passenger jet hits the Pentagon. More shock. Some individuals grow more passionate, more assured, others more robotic and distracted. A female air force adjutant in New York becomes visibly shaken as the day progresses. Shouting is involved. Profanity leaks into what was once cool professional speech. The question arises of whether the Air Force will have to shoot down passenger planes. Greengrass’ camera grows more chaotic. As the film begins, we are sure of the geography of each location. Before long, we are sure of nothing.

There is supreme grace under pressure, as well. Major James Fox of NEADS angrily rebukes the FAA’s refusal to give clearance and scrambles his jets anyway. The air traffic controllers stay at their seats and do their jobs, when many of us would have lost all train of thought. Do they have friends and families in New York or Virginia? We only suspect and do not know, because they do not say, nor would they have. And Ben Sliney, on his first day as FAA Controller, makes quick decisions that most of us would balk at: not only does he completely shut down American airspace, he forcefully justifies it in a way that suggests he will certainly not have to justify it to himself twice.

The film, which has never really left the plight of Flight 93, even when it has cut away, now returns in full force for the final act of the film, which involves the passengers of the now-hijacked plane making phone calls to loved ones and processing the horror they are a part of. When the full scope of the terror plot becomes clear, they are compelled to act, leading to a final act of rebellion that is inspiring but not insipid, sad but not maudlin. In many ways, the final act of sacrifice of the Flight 93 passengers recalls the images of those who fell to their deaths as the Trade Towers buckled and fell. In the end, they had few choices. But they did choose.

By following the plot of the movie this way, I make the film seem like a checklist. Perhaps it is. There is value in that approach. United 93 shies away from character development, not just because it would be hard to jimmy it in, but also because that would dilute its purpose. It is intended to provide a reference point for tragedy, by allowing us into the rooms we are forbidden to enter, to illustrate how the story of United 93 and September 11 is a touchstone. Not for cruelty and violence, although there is that, but for shared compassion, and for bravery that is left unhighlighted, so that it seems more believably within our own reach. The documentary technique of the movie is a masterstroke, because it implicates us in the action. The method implies our own presence within each location, so that when things are upturned, we feel as powerless as the people we are watching must have felt.

For many, United 93 will prove a difficult experience. Perhaps even an impossible one. The events of September 11 touched us all profoundly in many ways, and it is our individual right to chose the way we process that tragedy, now even ten years after the fact. One does not have to like this movie, nor does one even have to respect this movie. But it is worth the effort. We are now at a point when September 11th has become a page in history books, and a package on the nightly news. Some now alive will never understand what that day felt like, and it is important that we recall, not so that we can dredge up the pain, but so that we can accurately reflect the fragility and preciousness of life, which can be underlined sometimes even by the dramatic way it is taken from us.

The phrase that is often used is “Never forget.” People say that a lot. But people do forget. I forget sometimes. But watching United 93, ten years after 9/11/2011, everything came flooding back. It’s important for me to feel that way. It reminds us of our mortality, our innocence, and our pain. And of the people we lost. If you can believe that a film can change the way you think, then I hope you’ll understand when I say that United 93 made me feel those losses all over again. Not because I felt like I knew them. But I feel like I did them once, in passing. The film is a monument to their courage, their pain, and their loss. And, yes, to our own as well.

GRADE: A

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