UNITED 93 (2006) – Film Review (Part 1)

If I had to pick one category in which United 93 is most deserving of an Oscar, I would say it is Best Director. Regardless of its future favor (or lack thereof) with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, United 93 will stand the test of time because of one factor: writer/director Paul Greengrass approached this project with no political agenda. He desired to tell the story in a way that was faithful to the facts and that honored the memory of the heroic passengers onboard Flight 93. This film could have been the springboard for manipulative proselytizing. Instead, it thrives on its greatest asset: sincere objectivity.

Not everything is factual. Much of the dialogue was improvised, and we obviously don’t know many details about those last horrible minutes before the plane crashed into the ground. But through a painstaking process, the filmmakers pieced together what we do know and filled in the blanks as best they could. Greengrass contacted all the families of those who died on Flight 93. All of them contributed to the making of the film. All of them passionately supported the telling of this story. That, in and of itself, speaks volumes about the timeliness and integrity of this project.

For me, the most harrowing part of the film was the first thirty minutes. We’re introduced to the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 as they carry about normal—even mundane—tasks and conversations…but we know what’s coming, and that fills us with apprehension.

The approach the film takes in telling the story is nothing short of masterful. The usual Hollywood trappings are absent. There are no flashy visual or gratuitous sound effects to hype up the action. All the shots are handheld, documentary style, making the proceedings that much more realistic. John Powell’s musical score is scarce and only rises to any form of prominence during the climax. No big-name actors arrest our attention away from the story.

Another element of the film that gives it a you-are-there feel is that we don’t really get to know any of the passengers. There are no flashbacks giving us insight into their lives. In fact, at the end of the movie we still don’t know most of their names. It’s as if we are fellow passengers on the plane, without the normal cinematic barriers that separate audience and actors. These elements, coupled with my close proximity to the events of 9/11 (both chronologically and geographically), made me feel right in the middle of the conflict.

This movie is not entertaining. That is not its purpose. It serves as a memorial—and (whether it was designed to or not) also as a wakeup call. On that account, the experience takes quite an emotional toll. I can honestly say I have never been so drained from a movie. Both the heroism and horror in the final sequence will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I went to see the film by myself—a wise decision in retrospect. While alone, feelings of dread, fear, grief, horror, and rage were my close companions throughout the duration of the screening. At times, my body uncontrollably shook from the stress of it all. Knowing that much of what I was watching was factual (and, in some cases, word-for-word accurate) added to the realism. I’ve cried in movies before in reaction to the dramatic weight of the story. This movie, however, wasn’t a fictional narrative; in 2001, I watched as news reports told of the events that I was now witnessing in the film. This was real. I didn’t just cry watching United 93—I grieved.

Even The Passion of the Christ was easier to watch. Amidst the violence of that film, we knew from Scripture that Christ’s sacrifice was redemptive; He defeated sin and death—and He was raised from the dead on the third day. Here, we’re still not sure what God’s purposes were in allowing the events of September 11th. Indeed, the passengers on Flight 93 prevented the destruction of another national landmark, but everyone who died in that crash remains dead. The conclusion of United 93 is bittersweet…but mostly bitter.

The bitter aftertaste forces the viewer to ask questions that have been largely ignored: what do we do now? Has our response to 9/11 been effective? Have we responded at all? We may not have “forgotten” 9/11 in the sense that we don’t remember it happened, but have we refused to properly acknowledge the events of that day? Are we ignoring the enemy those passengers faced on that terrible morning?

United 93 involves the first individuals who had a clear view of the post-9/11 world. Greengrass explains in a recent Times article:

“At 28 minutes past 9,” says Greengrass of Sept. 11, “none of us were wondering What are we going to do? We were watching telly, wondering What the [----] is going on? The people on United 93 weren’t doing that. They were looking at four guys. They knew exactly what was going on.”

The perspective from which the United 93 passengers viewed the situation helps us with our own, limited perspective. And if their perspective affects ours, how should we as individuals and we as a nation respond?

Stay tuned for the 2nd half of the review of the movie…

(In the meantime, if you want to read a more intelligent take on United 93 than my own, head over to The Cranky Insomniac. Probably the best review of United 93 I’ve read thus far. If you like what you read there, check out more of his thoughts on the film here. And if you want to read even more about the movie, check out his third United 93 blog entry here.)