Anyone who pays to see United 93 hoping to be entertained will be sadly disappointed. Quite frankly, anyone looking for any entertainment value in United 93 is out of his or her mind. Like Shoah and Born Into Brothels, United 93 isn’t so much a film as a filmed document, a harrowing but ultimately heroic tale of everyday people who made the ultimate sacrifice.
I knew going in that United 93 would be hard to watch, yet I also knew I had to see the film. Not out of morbid curiosity, but out of obligation, to honor the passengers and crew members who turned a hopeless situation into a beacon of hope, a desperate act into a moment of patriotism.
Historical milestones provide us with a collective experience, moments frozen in time when each of us can tell each other what we were doing and thinking. Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and now September 11.
Like the events which unfold in United 93, September 11 started as just another day. The brilliance of the film is that it never exploits or manipulates the tragedy. Using cell phone conversations and supposition, filmmaker Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy) recreates the events through real time.
As the writer, Greengrass refuses to take sides. Until we meet them at the airport or on the job, the passengers, air traffic controllers, pilots, crew members and even terrorists are just people, the sort of people who cross our paths every day without notice. Privileged with hindsight, we know better and, as the passengers and crew board their plane, we instantly go to a dark place.
Since a lot of what happened aboard United 93 is based on conjecture, it would have been easy for Greengrass to milk the emotional teat. Disaster films stack the cards against potential victims so their demise is met with shock and dismay. Greengrass avoids lingering sentimentality, never allowing the characters to wallow in excessive self pity.
The film wisely features actors without a lot of recognizable baggage, allowing us to accept them as the characters they play. There are no star turns in United 93, just honest, hard-hitting and poignant performances which help us understand and accept the choices made by these people.
Some of the faces may be familiar (the lady from Northern Exposure, the judge from Law and Order), but we never feel like we’re watching actors. From the first frame of United 93, Greengrass puts us in the moment. Little slices of life occupy the passengers, nothing out of the ordinary, yet vital clues to who these people are and how a planeload of strangers will come together as one.
That progression is what makes United 93 compelling and gut-wrenching. Unless we’re asking for a drink or someone to move out of the way so we can go to the restroom, we rarely interact with other passengers on a plane. We’re so wrapped up in our own little world, we forget we’re sharing a communal experience. Only in times of tragedy do we come together, even if it’s only for selfish survival reasons.
Avoiding sentimental devices like flashbacks, Greengrass uses handheld cameras to get us up close and personal with the passengers of United 93, whose flight from New Jersey to San Francisco was one of four planes hijacked to be used as weapons against America. Even though we know the outcome of the flight, the unfolding events still leave a hole in your heart and stomach. Greengrass can’t improve on the truth and fortunately doesn’t try.
To maintain the story’s integrity and authenticity, several key personnel play themselves, and this cinema vérité approach helps keep United 93 honest and riveting. While we’ll never really know the full extent of what happened on the flight, United 93 is the right film at the right time to help us remember and honor those who gave their lives.