Monday, September 11, 2006

United 93

Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Christian Clemenson, Cheyenne Jackson, Trish Gates, David Alan Basche, Polly Adams
Running Time: 111 minutes

Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

How do you even review a movie like this? I'm giving United 93 my highest rating yet find it difficult recommending anyone see it. It's painful and horrifying. I told myself going in I'd try to look at it objectively as a film without letting my thoughts or feelings on 9/11 influence my opinion. Minutes into the picture that approach was thrown out the window. The movie is frighteningly real as if it were shot by someone who was there, camcorder in hand. It's less a film than a claustrophobic historical account. There's nothing movieish or actorish about it as everything unfolds in real time and by all accounts pretty close to the 9/11 Commission's report on the crash of highjacked United Flight 93 onto a field just outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It was the only one of four planes that didn't reach it's intended target that day.

This film alternates between what starts as an ordinary day at the National Air Traffic Control Center and and the passengers who are boarding Flight 93, including the four Arab men who plan to hijack the aircraft. We watch as the air traffic controllers attempt to keep track of all the allegedly hijacked planes that day and see them react as the as the World Trade Center is hit. Sadly, we see the government's ridiculously slow reaction time and inability to employ any aircraft to immediately deal with the situation. This isn't political propaganda though. It's true. By all accounts, this is how everything happened.

The terrorists are depicted as nameless, faceless nobodies and the passengers have no back stories at all. We know nothing about them. Deliberately, no name actors have been cast in any of the roles, further heightening the realism. The scariest part of the movie is the waiting. The waiting for it to happen. Watching the terrorists make it past security and the passengers go about their normal conversations completely unaware anything was going to happen was practically unbearable. A lot of time is spent at the beginning of the film in the air traffic control center and I think I know why. Besides giving us insight into how those on the ground handled the situation, it would have been too much for viewers to handle getting right into the situation of the hijacked flight. It's too jarring. We had to be eased into it.

When we're finally in the air there's more waiting. It becomes clear these terrorists really don't have much of a plan. They keep looking at each other wondering when it's the right time. They can never agree. The sloppiness of the situation only makes it scarier. There were points when I felt like screaming at the screen for them just to do it so it's over with. When it finally does happen some of the details are surprising. Like how the terrorists don't seem to care everyone's plotting and making phone calls. How they're in a panic the whole time unsure of what to do.

I, like many others, have always wondered how just a few guys with box cutters could possibly hijack a commercial aircraft. The film answers this question. They can and the passengers did absolutely everything in their power to stop it. We know how the story ends yet there's still tension as we realize the passengers were extremely close to escaping alive. We even learn one of them was even a pilot and ready to take over if they could break through into the cabin. We hear the phone calls the passengers make to their families right before they make the decision to take these guys down. You can hardly breathe the last twenty minutes of the film. There's no grandstanding or performances here. It feels like we're watching and hearing the real thing.

The film is disturbing but it's never offensive or exploitive. Clearly Greengrass put a lot of thought into how this was to be presented in a way that gives gravity to the situation without overdramatizing it. Less is more. It was the right direction to go in and the most respectful. This presents a straight forward take of what happened to Flight 93, but believe me that's more than enough. The debate will rage on whether it was too early to make a film about this, but at least it's one of high quality and noble intentions that doesn't attempt to sensationalize anything. There's a special feature on the disc that lets you watch interviews with family members of the doomed flight. Good luck drumming up the desire to see it. Watching the film is just about all anyone will be able to take.

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