United 93

2006, Movie, R, 111 mins


Offering a realistic, documentary-style re-creation of events rather than a fictionalized dramatization, British director Paul Greengrass has carefully avoided turning one of the most painful moments in recent U.S. history into a piece of Hollywood entertainment. But in so doing, the tragedy of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers overpowered their hijackers on the morning of September 11, 2001, becomes one of the most harrowing, viscerally upsetting films ever made. Unfolding in near real time, the film begins with the boarding of United 93 on a picture-perfect morning, and the dawning realization at several air-traffic control centers that something is terribly wrong. After contact with L.A.-bound American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston is lost, an intercepted transmission suggests a hijacking, a scenario that becomes sickeningly more likely when the plane veers south and vanishes from the radar over the southern tip of Manhattan. Amid growing shock and confusion over a CNN report that a plane has crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, it becomes apparent that AA Flight 11 was just one of several hijacked aircraft. A second plane slams into the South Tower, and as efforts to reach President Bush and organize a military presence over Washington prove maddeningly fruitless, a third plane plows into the Pentagon. By now, two of the four hijackers aboard United 93 have forced their way into the cockpit and gained control of the plane. Panicked cell-phone calls reveal to the passengers and flight crew exactly what's transpired in New York and Washington and what will happen to them unless they do something. What makes the film so effective is Greengrass' insistence on foregoing recognizable stars and overtly scripted dialogue; what little standard characterization there is comes from mundane and, in retrospect, almost unbearably poignant chitchat. The heroes of United 93 were a group of ordinary people who had the grim benefit of knowing exactly how their trip would end; with nothing to lose and clinging to the hope that they might actually be able to save themselves, they collectively decided to act. Their willingness to stand up, resist and revolt is what makes them heroic, more "American" in the best possible sense of that concept (whether or not they in fact killed any of the hijackers before crashing, a brutally gratifying moment in the film, is questionable). And with no historical context other than what audiences bring in (Greengrass reportedly dropped a tacky end title declaring that "America's war on terror has begun"), we relive all the shock and fearful uncertainty of 9/11 while seeing much of it for the first time. Like it or not, this powerful, flawlessly executed film forces viewers aboard United Flight 93 for that fateful flight and asks us to consider how we might have acted under those same, terrifying circumstances. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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