Lewis Alsamari as Saeed Al Ghamdi
JJ Johnson as Captain Jason Dahl
JJ Johnson as Captain Jason M. Dahl
Trish Gates as Sandra Bradshaw
Polly Adams as Deborah Welsh
Cheyenne Jackson as Mark Bingham
Opal Alladin as CeeCee Lyles
Starla Benford as Wanda Anita Green
Nancy McDoniel as Lorraine G. Bay
David Alan Basche as Todd Beamer
Richard Bekins as William Joseph Cashman
Susan Blommaert as Jane Folger
Ray Charleson as Joseph DeLuca
Christian Clemenson as Thomas E. Burnett, Jr.
Liza Colón-Zayas as Waleska Martinez
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Early in the movie, there’s a scene where ground crews in a national command center see the first news images of the World Trade Center with a gaping hold in its side, unaware at the time that it was attacked by a hijacked plane. Quite literally, that is the image I saw from my apartment roof that morning at 8:50 AM, and over four years later, it’s still something that I would be very happy if I never see that again. With that in mind, there’s a good chance I may be too close to the material to view Greengrass’ film objectively.
That be as it may, Greengrass, who did such a great job recreating the 1972 civil rights march in Northern Ireland that turned deadly in “Bloody Sunday,” has found a unique narrative in telling a story that isn’t solely about the United 93 passengers who decided to take back their plane from hijackers. Instead, it’s more of an overview of some of the events from that fateful day, many of which few have been able to see, despite the 24-hour media coverage following the attacks.
For the most part, the film is shot like a documentary using handheld cameras, starting out mundanely enough as the crew and passengers prepare for another normal flight. At the FAA command center, operations manager Ben Sliney is starting his first day on the job, overseeing thousands of national flights to make sure they get where they’re going. It doesn’t take long before things start going wrong, first with one flight going missing with no response from the pilot, followed by others. As calm as everyone tries to remain, it’s not long before confusion turns to panic and then outright chaos, as no one knows how to deal with this unusual situation.
The film never comes across as exploitative, because Greengrass avoids the traditional dramatic license that most directors would use, trying to keep things as true to real life as possible. The movie doesn’t spend a half hour introducing each of the individual passengerswe don’t even learn most of their names. Instead of using big names or recognizable faces, Greengrass assembled an ensemble cast of unknown actors, and allowed them to improvise their lines based on portraits of the real people they were portraying. This effectively keeps the film from turning into an “Airport” style disaster film, but the ensemble does a brilliant job working together as a whole to portray the real drama and emotions one would expect.
The movie never tries to overdevelop the personalities of the passengers or crew, instead focusing on the events as they may have transpired. In that sense, the terrorists are probably the most developed characters, as we watch them prepare before boarding the flight, and see their nervousness and lack of communication that led to their failed mission. When the hijackers finally act, things happen so fast that it’s even more jarring, so you can relate to the chaos and confusion the passengers must have felt. While most of the film switches between the two or three scenes, once the passengers decide to fend off their attackers, the film sticks with them.
As dramatic as the final sequence is, some of the strongest moments in “United 93” are when we’re allowed into places rarely seen by normal people, such as the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) command centers, where tough decisions have to be made on whether to shoot down the hijacked planes. Greengrass brings much credibility to these scenes by having the real-life Ben Sliney playing himself. Many conspiracy theorists retain that Flight 93 was actually shot down and then covered up, but Greengrass covers those bases by basing these scenes on transcripts and testimonials from those who were there.
The biggest argument or question one might pose to Greengrass is how he extrapolated what happened on the plane. No one on the flight survived and there’s only so much someone might have relayed via celphone calls to loved ones. In that sense, there may be a bit more dramatic license at work here than some might think, and that aspect of the movie might have to be accepted as theoretical, rather than factual.
Not surprisingly, Greengrass removed an earlier political commentary in the film’s epilogue about how the events of 9/11 kicked off America’s war on terror; as true as that may be, it isn’t necessary for the telling of this story.
Regardless of the political subtext, there hasn’t been a movie since Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” that has left me so shaken or so close to tears as this powerfully emotional film. That alone should be a testament to what Greengrass has achieved as a filmmaker.
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