United 93 Review
September 11th is a day that will always be remembered as one that changed the world we live in. For the first time, terrorists successfully hijacked four planes in the United States and caused death on an unimaginable scale. Two of these planes - United Airlines Flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 11 - were flown directly into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Both towers collapsed within two hours with the loss of over 2600 lives. The third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, hit the Pentagon in Washington killing nearly 200 more. It is claimed that the fourth, United Airlines Flight 93, was intended to hit the United States Capitol building in Washington however it crashed into a field near Shanksville some 150 miles away from its target.
While all of the news reports detailed the devastation in New York and Washington, very little was reported on the Shanksville crash. Some speculated that the US Air Force had shot the plane down before it reached it's target, but no-one was sure what really happened until the events of the day were analysed and a story of desperation and courage emerged regarding the passengers of United Flight 93 who sacrificed their own lives when they discovered the hijacker's plan to fly the aircraft into a building in the Capital.
News that a film was to be made that told the story of the passengers of United 93 was met with mixed reaction. Some reacted with anger that 'Hollywood' would have the cheek to cash in on the events of 9/11 while the wound was still open. Others felt that it was a story that needed to be told, but would the makers do it justice?
Britain's Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) was announced as writer and director and managed to put together an unnerving and shocking, yet at the same time, touching film which was a more personal than many would have imagined. Selecting an unknown cast so as to avoid the pitfalls of having a big-name star and all of the preconceptions that would bring, Greengrass instead chose to place the story at the forefront. He also chose to keep effects shots to a minimum with just a CGI reconstruction of the pre-9/11 Manhattan skyline being an obvious and necessary inclusion.
The first half of the film is set almost entirely in Air Traffic Control as we watch plane after plane cut off radio contact. The escalating threat becomes obvious very quickly and the on-screen feeling matches exactly that which I felt when watching the real events unfold. Firstly the disbelief that a plane could crash into such an obvious landmark then the realisation that this wasn't some freak accident as we see the second plane cross the skyline from the point of view of the tower at Newark Airport and plough into the side of the South Tower. The reaction of the tower staff being exactly the same as when I remember seeing the footage broadcast around the world on TV. We all know the outcome, but as these things happen all over again the same feelings rise up. September 11th is very recent history and it the reactions around the world to this film demonstrate that not everyone is ready to see it happen - even in a reconstruction - a second time.
Intercut with the Air Traffic Control scenes we get to see the military reaction and it dawns just how toothless the US military was on that day - frustration runs high as everyone on the ground realise they're powerless to do anything to stop the devastation. While Dubya is sat in a classroom, the country he runs is brought to its knees unable to respond without Presidential authority. The red tape and precautions in place are the very things that stop any timely response and mistakes ran high as fighter jets head off in the wrong direction with no weapons on board.
Although the hijack is coming, the moment it actually happens really does take us by surprise in terms of how sudden and vicious it is. One of the terrorists stabs a passenger in the neck, another has a fake bomb strapped around his wasted and the moment when they take control of the cockpit is enough to make anyone hold onto their seat. From that moment onwards we're with the passengers as the situation worsens, the moment they discover the other events that morning and they discover that the terrorists are flying the plane is pivotal and as they decide to storm the cabin it becomes even more obvious that these people are heroes. There will always be debate, holes and obvious speculation regarding some of the events that happened on board the flight; however the phone calls of the passengers and the plane's black box held the vital clues to how things panned out.
Strong, sensitive direction with a lack of spectacle is exactly what Greengrass delivers and is exactly what this film needs and the cast's lack of star power brings them a lot closer to the rest of us. United 93 should be seen as a tribute to those passengers and to the others that lost their lives on that day.
Unfortunately, Universal only sent us a screener with a permanent 'Property of Universal' message so we can't give a full review of the disc’s picture quality. However, the transfer presented here is adequate but not noteworthy. Greengrass chose to use handheld cameras for the most part and the quick cuts and shakiness are a challenge for MPEG2 to handle and thankfully there are only a few glitches as a result. Some smearing was noticeable during particularly sudden movements and the image is a little soft but other than that the transfer is fine. Please note; this assessment may not be representative of the final retail release.
The English translation subtitles are burnt into the image and I felt they were a little on the small side, even on a large screen.
The sound quality is similarly fine. United 93 is a dialogue heavy film with little need for ambient sound and there certainly isn't a bombastic soundtrack to push any Dolby Digital system. However, when called for full use is made of the soundstage with directional effects particularly coming into their own when the plane is put into a dive by the hijackers. The DVD also handles the chaotic chatter at Air Traffic Control and the military well with a good sense of the growing concern and panic coming across from all sides.
The Region 2 DVD is identical to the US single-disc release. There is a limited edition release in Region 1 with an additional disc of extra features.
The first thing that comes to mind when Paul Greengrass talks about the film is that he knows just how much of a responsibility he has to so many people in the making of the film. United 93 is based on such recent events that there are far more pressures and requirements that need to be met to ensure that what appears on screen is worthy. The director has a good grasp of what he wanted the film to be and he intelligently discusses the choices he made when putting the final cut together.
United 93: The Families and the Film
This 60 minute feature is a perfect accompanying piece to the film. Emotions run high as the families of those that died go in front of the camera to talk about their feelings and thoughts on the day's events and the film. The people whose lives were directly affected were hesitant at first but the producers worked directly with them to ensure that the subject was covered sensitively. We see the actors meet the families of the people they are about to portray.
A series of pages listing the details of all of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 along with their photos and a few pages of biographical text. This is a worthwhile and necessary addition to the disc and brings home the lives of these people that we would usually never get to know about.
Despite the concern of many, United 93 is by no means an attempt to cash in on the terrorist attacks that changed the world that we ALL live in. Instead it is an attempt to highlight the more personal plight that a small group of heroes stood up to in order to stop more death on a large scale. There's no doubt that the passengers of Flight 93 saved the lives of countless others despite knowing their own chances of survival were slim and Paul Greengrass has sensitively brought this story forward. United 93 is a touching tribute to those that died.
Universal's DVD looks to be worth a purchase. The sound and picture are adequate and the features do add value to this release.