United 93 Review

The first of this year’s two high-profile Hollywood movies about 9/11, Paul Greengrass’ acclaimed film dramatises what happened aboard the fourth hijacked aircraft, which failed to hit its target in Washington. Featuring a cast of little-known actors, the film uses a naturalistic approach to try and capture the experience of the passengers and crew. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.

September 11th, 2001. For the personnel operating America’s Air Traffic Control centres, tracking the hundreds of flights navigating the nation’s skyways, it’s just another busy Tuesday morning. The first sign that something is off is the failure to respond to radio transmissions of an American Airlines 767 flying close to Manhattan. A controller swears he heard someone say something in a foreign language before the plane went silent. Can it be a hijacking? There hasn’t been one of those for years. Then another aircraft breaks contact. Then another. Out of the control centre’s window, somebody notices black smoke billowing out of the World Trade Centre.

Oblivious to these events, at Newark Airport in New Jersey, the crew of a United Airlines 757 prepares the plane for a domestic flight to San Francisco. The jet is only sparsely filled with students, businesspeople, couples. Also on board are four young Arab men. They’re jumpy; some of them are sweating. When the aircraft is held in a queue to await a late take-off, they become more agitated. These men are terrorists, the fourth of four groups carrying out missions that day. They plan to hijack the plane and crash it into a ground target in Washington DC.

I have to admit I cringed when I first read about United 93. I cringed again when I saw the posters and watched the trailers. Did we need a recreation of 9/11, a tragedy that had burned itself into our memories, only five years later? Did we need this film and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center re-opening the wounds quite so soon? It was only when the reviews for United 93 came in and they were overwhelmingly positive, many hailing it as a masterpiece, that I began to contemplate going to see it. Even then, if I hadn’t thought DVD Times needed a cinema review, I’m not certain I’d have gone.

I don’t watch films with my chin on my thumb, regarding them as works of art; I go to get involved. I want to feel something. In this case, I wasn’t sure I wanted to feel anything! I’d been upset enough watching 9/11 from a distance on the day. I’d avoided all the retrospectives. I wasn’t in a hurry to be see a film promising to take me on board one of the doomed planes and experience the terror the crew and passengers must have felt.

Probably many of you reading this will have similar thoughts about United 93. That’s why the box office has been tepid despite the rave reviews. I’m not going to try and convince you this is “A Film Everyone Must See!”, as some reviewers have done. The movie is just as harrowing as you would expect it to be and if you’re not prepared to sit through it, you have my complete sympathy and that of writer-director Paul Greengrass, who has made similar remarks.

If however, you are planning to see it, I can assure you you’re going to see one of the best films of 2006. United 93 is an overwhelming emotional experience, a movie that works on its audience on a primal level. It’s the antithesis to a film like Good Night And Good Luck, a quiet, intellectual film that makes its points with words, yet it’s no less intelligent. The ideas are there, just expressed through action and emotion. When it’s over, it inspires just as much thought.

The film also inspires strong personal reactions and I think everyone’s will be different. I’ve read reviews that claim the film is unbiased and has moments where you’re sympathetic to the terrorists. I didn’t sympathise with them for a second! In my opinion the film is extremely biased towards the passengers and rightly so. Perhaps what the reviewers meant was that the film doesn’t use cheap tricks to portray the terrorists as standard movie villains, like the cartoon terrorists of True Lies. It doesn’t and nor should it. The film’s greatest accomplishment is the sense of documentary-like reality it maintains, unbroken, from beginning to end.

Paul Greengrass has done an incredible job of reconstructing the events of September 11th, 2001, as experienced by the occupants of that hijacked 767 and the Air Traffic Control centres in vivid, utterly convincing detail. Of course it’s not possible to reconstruct exactly what happened on the 767 since no one aboard it survived. The film has to rely to a degree on speculation, albeit supported by evidence taken from the plane’s black box and from phone calls made to family and friends by the people on board.

This won’t satisfy everyone. There are those who are convinced that the plane was shot down by the US military. I can’t accept that theory mainly because I don’t understand why there would be a need to cover that up. Who wouldn’t have understood the decision to shoot the plane down, considering the alternative was allowing it to crash into another building filled with people? The film actually shows military and civilian personnel trying desperately to get authorisation to do just that and we sympathise with them completely. There may be holes in the official story but this conspiracy theory holds no water whatsoever.

What Greengrass does is present the most plausible version of events possible: that the passengers and crew, who had learned about the World Trade Centre attacks and realised their plane was going to be used as a missile, tried to storm the cockpit, subdue the terrorists and reclaim control of the aircraft.

He does a magnificent job. United 93 feels real in every regard. The effect isn’t of watching a movie but of witnessing a real tragedy unfold. Greengrass avoids the pitfalls Gus Van Sant fell into when he made the high school massacre drama Elephant in a similar style. Van Sant got the performances and the details right but his self-conscious camerawork and his insistence on casting actors with fashion model looks in almost every role kept getting in the way, keeping us at arm’s length. Greengrass’s direction is invisible. He makes substantial use of handheld cameras, as he did in The Bourne Supremacy, although this time the effect isn’t as jarring. The closest comparison I can make is Steven Spielberg’s work on Munich, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List. He puts you in the movie. He makes you feel what the characters are feeling – what you’d be feeling if you were on that plane.

Watching the remake of The Omen the day after I saw Flight 93, it occurred to me how much the technical aspects of most movies call attention to themselves, particularly those of thrillers. The lighting, the sets, the costumes, the special effects – they all scream, “look at me!” Flight 93 does the opposite thing. The technical teams who made it can’t be any less skilled, they just put their efforts into disguising their work rather than advertising it.

It’s the same story with the actors. Discussing the performances is pointless – there’s no discernible acting. If there were, the spell would be broken. The actors simply are the characters – the passengers, the crew, the terrorists, the air traffic controllers. In fact some of the controllers really are the same people who were on duty on 9/11. Greengrass has wisely used no stars, opting for a cast of unknowns who bring no baggage to the film.

It’s easy to forget there’s a script and to underestimate how cleverly structured it is. Greengrass allows over an hour of build-up before the hijacking occurs. The first hour takes place largely at Air Traffic Control, where we share the mounting horror of the controllers as they realise what’s happening and try, far too late, to intervene. Going behind the scenes at ATC makes for fascinating viewing and this is a very clever way of sucking us in. United 93 is a movie many of us will resist getting too involved with but we get hooked despite ourselves.

This escalating drama at ATC, intercut with snippets of dull routine on the United jet and cuts to the perspiring terrorists, builds up a tremendous sense of dread. We already know what’s going to happen and we understand that there’s nothing anyone on the ground is going to be able to do. Once the terrorists seize the plane, the action comes like a gut punch.

As superbly made as it is, if United 93 were merely a reconstruction of a disaster, you’d have to question its purpose. It isn’t. This is a film about something and that something is courage. This is the story of a group of ordinary men and women who were put in a nightmarish situation they didn’t deserve to be in and who rose to the occasion with the most astonishing bravery.

Consider for a moment the extraordinary nature of what those passengers did. Even when facing certain death, the overriding human impulse is not to risk shortening your life further by resisting. That’s why condemned prisoners allow themselves to be led, docile, to their execution. That’s why the passengers of the other three planes, who knew before the crashes that they were going to die – the terrorists told them as much and allowed them to call their families – did nothing. The passengers of United 93 refused to go down without a fight and they refused to allow themselves to be used as a weapon against other innocents. Whether or not you think the timing of this film’s release is right, it was worth making as a tribute to them and to the stand they made.

Yes, the movie will leave you shocked and angry and upset but it should also leave you feeling inspired, spiritually uplifted even. The final ten minutes are as exhilarating as they are harrowing. I wanted to cheer for these people, I wanted them to take control of the plane, I wanted the events onscreen to turn out differently to the way they did. That the outcome isn’t a perfect happy ending is beside the point though. The passengers and crew of United 93 saved the lives of others and they tried their best to save their own. This film is a lot of things but it isn’t downbeat and it isn’t depressing.

Kevin O'Reilly

Updated: Jun 07, 2006

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
United 93 Review | The Digital Fix