United 93 Review
Before sitting down to watch United 93 for a second time on DVD, and having already seen it in the cinema, I was planning on ripping the film apart, criticising its very existence and pointing out what I considered to be huge filmmaking flaws. But then, after watching the film for a second time and delving into this disc's extra material, I began to re-evaluate my opinion. This is indeed a very difficult film to review.
Just as people remember where they were when the news that JFK had been assassinated was announced, and more recently with the emotional bulletin of Princess Diana's death, the events of 9/11 scourged our minds back in 2001. In the space of one day the goalposts of the modern world had been irrevocably moved, a change that drew a highly-visible divide between the East and West, and between Christianity and Islam. This sort of divide is not new, or particularly different to what has come before, but the way in which 9/11 unfolded made sure that, for the first time, the international world had to sit up and take notice. Thanks to our media culture, the footage of the planes hitting their prestigious targets was brought to us in real-time, a documentary of horrors unfolding on every TV screen across the world. We all know what happened – we've all seen the slow-motion action replays. We know how many people died – America still cries publicly on the international stage. No wounds have been healed – we're still fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and at home. Above all else, this event and its consequences are seared into our national consciousnesses.
So why make United 93? Why suffer the indignity of Hollywood producing a multi-million dollar film to recreate events that we are so familiar with, we already argue over the finer points. Was Flight 93 shot down or did it merely crash? Did one of the passengers really utter the gung-ho line, that slice of Americana, "let's roll"? In fact, we seem to forget that above all else, the tragedy of Flight 93 was that over forty people perished on the frontlines of a conflict that they didn't even know was happening. Surely, the damage done in terms of international politics cannot compare to the private tragedies of thousands of families?
Paul Greengrass is therefore either a very brave or a very stupid man. A celebrated director who struck it big with 2004's The Bourne Supremacy, he was heading to the Hollywood A-list long before he announced the huge gamble of adapting this tributary of 9/11 for the big screen. What some people may not realise, however, was that Greengrass always possessed a quiet determination to secure the consent of all the victims' families and to present events as they were, not as a Hollywood film usually chooses to do. But there is the key – "the victims' families". The passengers on Flight 93, contrary to popular American belief and the tired rhetoric of the Bush administration, were not heroes. They were not combatants or warriors. They were simply people going about their inward-looking lives, trying to protect themselves before they died. No matter what happened on that plane, the full events of which we shall never know, they should be honoured as victims and not dressed up in some overblown American hoo-ha of heroism. Don't get me wrong – some of the passengers must have been brave; they had to be. But in justifying the existence of this film, people must look at Greengrass' work as a memorial.
But, as critics have recently explained with the contentious release of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, a film's extenuating circumstances cannot be praised at the expense of the film itself. Regardless of the filmmakers' intentions, United 93 is under scrutiny as a film – no less and no more. So, when I first saw the film earlier this year, I was infuriated with some of the creative decisions. I felt that the characters were clichéd, representing broad strains of the American population without ever delving into their individual personalities or responses to the crisis. I felt that Greengrass' direction was too showy, brought about by an overuse of handheld camerawork. Yes, audiences knew that he wanted to create a sense of realism and immediacy, of witnessing these people's reactions to events that they had never anticipated, but the whole thing smacked of tactlessness. Similarly, United 93 was a grossly patriotic film which portrayed Muslims and a German passenger in a deeply-dark light without ever criticising the American establishment. For example, would it not be true to criticise some of the actions of the United crew, such as opening the cockpit door in the first place? And would it be churlish to scold the ATC crews for their total lack of awareness and forward-thinking?
What United 93 lacks, and the singular thing which fails this film as a credible piece of filmmaking, is a total absence of detail and commentary. Greengrass the screenwriter works in broad strokes, establishing the environment without ever delving within it. Granted, he may be seeking a documentarian's grasp of the day's events, but every good documentary will at least probe beneath the surface. By dressing the film up with technical ATC jargon, by using a minute-by-minute approach and by tracking amongst the plane's aisles to capture the appearance of every doomed passenger, United 93 tries to pass itself off as an authoritative and detailed voice. What's missing, however, is an enlightening exploration of the terrorists' choices, of Islam versus Christianity, of the reasons why the government and the air traffic controllers couldn't get a grip on the situation. Luckily, the disc's extras probe these matters with considerable aplomb, but the film itself does not. I appreciate the fact that Greengrass has presented things as they were – a sentiment which always reminds me of Mel Gibson's desperate pledge with The Passion of the Christ – but audiences will have to do their own research to fully understand these disparate elements which all collided so tragically on September 11th. Similarly, things aren't helped by the fact that Greengrass based most of his screenplay on The 9/11 Commission Report, a document that is at best slightly biased and at worst deeply flawed.
I can't help but wonder whether the story within United 93, one of narrow focus amongst the fuselage of Flight 93 and great periphery when you link back to their outside world, would have worked better as an expanded miniseries. That way the lives of the passengers and of their Muslim opposites could have been developed and fully explored, doing justice to the sweeping themes and emotions of 9/11. But, regardless of the medium, there is still validity in the question: is there any need for this film to even exist?
However, for all of United 93's failings, it does have considerable merit. The victims' families have gained a sense of catharsis and peace – that so much they have admitted – and audiences will realise why a situation like this must never be repeated. Furthermore, in cinematic terms the film is gripping for the most part, if a little flaccid in the middle and underbaked in ways that I have outlined above. Greengrass' direction isn't so distracting on a smaller screen and certain visual elements are astounding, most notably the cinematography. I also recommend that people rewatch the film after learning more about the passengers' lives, in order to appreciate some of the actors' fine physicality. Above all else, this film will fuel constructive discussion and it does act as a fitting tribute to the victims, even if the film may not portray every element with absolute veracity.
Released by Universal Pictures, two Region 1 editions are available – this one-disc version and a two-disc special edition, which features a bonus disc with the documentary "Chasing Planes – Witnesses to 9/11"; furthermore, this one-disc version is identical to the recently-released R2 disc. English, Spanish and French subtitles are provided throughout the main feature and the disc's menus are well designed.
Presented in the correct aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the video transfer is very good on the whole. Granted, the image is a little soft, something which is no doubt brought about by the more standard-definition handheld cameras employed by Greengrass for practical reasons, and there is an intentional amount of grain on the picture, but overall the transfer copes well. There is the odd sign of compression artefacts, usually during fast-moving shots (of which there are a fair few), but the cold, ice blue tint of the cinematography is faithfully reproduced. The audio, meanwhile, is similarly pleasing – an involving Dolby Digital 5.1 mix brings you into the action without being overbearing, whilst the dialogue is constantly presented crisply and cleanly. Scenes set in the ATC centre are particularly dynamic, with voices coming at you from all corners of the room. Incidentally, the 5.1 soundtrack is also presented in French and Spanish language options, with a DVS (Audio Descriptive) Track being presented in English 2.0.
For the first time in quite a while, a DVD's extras have significantly furthered my enjoyment and appreciation of a film. Kicking off with an extremely cogent audio commentary from writer/director Paul Greengrass, his philosophical outlook is appropriate and interesting. However, it would have been nice if he could have incorporated some of his more developed – and dare say it, audacious – ideas into the screenplay itself. Perhaps he decided it would have been too daring, or maybe Universal made that decision for him. But, the most compelling bonus feature is a 50-minute piece entitled "The Families and the Film", which delves into the suffering and subsequent battles of eight families who lost loved ones on 9/11. Without sounding clichéd, one of the stories genuinely opened my eyes and showed the urgency of the families' quest for closure and peace. Rounding off the bonus materials is a collection of memorial pages to the victims. Touching, if perhaps unnecessary.
A film that sometimes verges on the compelling and the powerful, United 93 also treads dangerously close to the underbaked and the downright manipulative. However, the film is undeniably gripping and if it wasn't for the world's desensitisation, the images would strike a more harrowing chord with audiences. Nevertheless, it is a film which deserves to be seen and discussed; fortunately Universal has supported Greengrass' vision with substantial extras and a solid A/V package.