September 11, 2001. Four planes were hijacked. Three of them reached their target. This is the story of the fourth.
This is a balancing act of the highest order and director Paul Greengrass deserves humungo credit for making a film that is honest, educational and yes, as intense an experience as you will likely have in the theatre all year. United 93 is a flat-out winner. It’s a practically perfect film that tells many stories: subplots of confusion, failures in communication, an education on the events of September 11th (and yes, there are things still to be learned unless you’ve read the 9/11 commission report. You will be amazed how long it took and how hard a process it was just to get air proection over the capital, or how fighter jets even headed the wrong way, or how a plan was in place to ram one of the doomed planes because, wouldn’t you know it, two jets sent on a search mission weren’t even armed). But more importantly, this is a tasteful and realistic portrayal of real-life heroism.
After leaving the theatre, I was devastated but appreciative. The controversy surrounding this film has been “Do we need this movie right now?”. I don’t know whether or not we “need” this film, but I’m glad Universal Pictures had the balls to make it because it is a damn good memorial to the bravery of the passengers on board.
United 93 is basically the Discovery Channel’s The Flight That Fought Back (a great film/documentary on the same subject) minus the real-life interviews. But it manages to be even better because of the loads of information being thrown at you every passing frame. Greengrass takes you into chaos of the Cleveland, New York and Boston air traffic control centers. He throws you into military command ops and you see the control centers frustration with the military and the military’s frustration with high command and the seemingly non-existent executive branch. Oh don’t you worry, this is not an attack on the administration because the real problem lay in the lack of preparation, planning and communication breakdowns. Processes and rules of engagement aren’t even clear and why can’t the President or Vice President be reached, damnit?
Cookie-cutter characterizations are avoided because it is against the very nature of the film. You don’t get to know these characters the same way you would in disaster films like Titanic or the upcoming Poseidon. Would you know anything about the guy sitting next to you on an airplane? In this film you feel like you are right there, in the traffic control centers or aboard Flight 93 and I found myself so engrossed that I was begging in vain for the hijack to not take place and rooting for the passengers to get back control of the plane. And the best compliment I can give the performers is that there is no acting in this film and in fact many of the people here portray themselves.
After watching United 93 you look back and realize the providence of the flight’s 20 minute delay before departure as without this delay the passengers onboard would never of had enough time to act. You look back and appreciate the men and women who worked hard through the chaos on the ground. Yet for all their hard work, they had little to do with the fate of flight 93 because they had so little control over the events in the grand scheme of things. Hopefully, this is the lesson to be learned. They were making smart decisions, but they were left helpless, their collective hands tied behind their backs, unable to truly act. Only the passengers onboard the plane could, your very own friends and neighbors. You salute the passengers aboard the plane and their lack of flash only makes them more heroic. It’s all very visceral. You want to jump through the screen to fight back with them, even if you know how it ends.