While there isn’t a person in this country that doesn’t know what happened on September 11, 2001, most of the somber spotlight tends to fall on the collapse and tragedy in the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The other two incidents, the crashing of a plane into the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania crash, often seem to be overlooked. Today many films are being made about the events of that day and what happened in New York, but Paul Greengrass decided to push the focus to Flight 93, which was intended to hit Washington D.C. but crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania field instead. United 93 tells the tale of the passengers on that plane and what they did, knowing what had happened to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, to take control of the plane and make sure it did not hit its target. United 93 is a hard movie to watch, but Paul Greengrass presents the day America’s heart skipped a beat fairly, without anger and without victims.
The opening scene of United 93 is that of a Muslim man praying in a hotel room, he is interrupted by another man who states “it’s time.” Right away, perspective is key. While the audience knows what is about to happen, and knows these actors are playing the parts of the terrorists, Greengrass doesn’t show them full of rage, cursing, laughing, throwing things around, or anything like that. They know they are about to die themselves and pray for the strength to do what they feel they need to do. For a film like this it would have been easy to toss in hatred toward these men, yet Greengrass follows them without judgment. He shows them getting ready to go, shaving, driving to the airport, waiting to board, and then with a call to say “I love you”, they board the plane. It's a very simple display as the passengers sit oblivious to their fate and the terrorists among them look almost fearful because they know theirs.
The film then shifts from United 93 to Air Traffic Control and military stations across the country. The movie unfolds as four different flights lose contact, one by one, while the control towers and ATC personnel being realize planes have been hijacked. Initially the pace and flow of the film is well done, the music encourages a sense of dread for an audience that already knows the outcome as actors display perfect normalness of an ordinary day. Flight 93 takes off and the still standing twin towers can be seen out the windows of the plane.
What doesn’t work for the film is that once 93 is in the air, and after there has been a visual introduction to the passengers, the next thirty minutes of the film stays with ATC reactions. There is no doubt that these scenes build tension, it’s wonderful at that, and everyone in these scenes are real people who worked in these places on September 11th. Their responses are perfect, but this is a film about United 93. To be a complete movie it shifts focus to a lesser known story, and spends a lot of time talking about that day as a whole. Granted it would be hard to talk about this flight without discussing the others, but the amount of time spent there could have been lessened. There ends up being too much extra, making the film seem scrambled and unfocused. Eventually the pace starts to drag when compared to the opening momentum felt at the beginning. The tension continues, but the drama, emotion, and painful anticipation set up in the beginning is only seen when the audience is with the passengers. The film is called United 93 so the movie should have spent more time focused with the plane.
One particularly powerful scene takes place in mid-air after the terrorists have hijacked 93 and taken over the cockpit. As the lead terrorist flies the aircraft with a photo of the Capital building hanging in front of him, he begins to pray. Likewise, the passengers in the back of the plane are praying to live. It is a beautiful and emotional sequence where every person on the plane is connecting to his or her higher power for strength. Greengrass makes his portrayal of the event incredibly fair and doesn’t interject his own feelings or interpretation into the film. It is what it is. In that same way, Greengrass’ ending for the film is perfect and complete. He lets the story play all the way through and end with dignity. United 93, even with the excess of outside events, is the best possible way to depict what happened on that plane when passengers selflessly came together to stop a larger disaster.
The disc for United 93 focuses its attention on the families of the passengers and the passengers themselves. There are “Memorial Pages” where, by selecting a name from a list, the biography of each passenger can be read. This is a wonderful tribute to them, much better than just showing their pictures and their names. While some biographies are short others are much longer, each one building an image of who each of the people on the plane were.
The next feature is “United 93: The Families and the Film.” This one is a bit odd but touching at the same time. The producers of the film sent some of the actors to meet family members of the person they portrayed in the film. There are hugs, a sharing of stories, and a genuine connection made between the two, but I couldn’t help wondering if this was just a PR stunt to build familial support for the film. It feels awkward at times. By hugging an actor it was as though they were hugging their lost husband, wife, child, parent, etc. While it was a beautiful touch, and a nice idea, it was a meeting of people that owed each other nothing.
Included on this release is a wonderfully insightful audio commentary with Paul Greengrass, who talks virtually nonstop about the film, the people, and the higher purpose he was aiming for. Greengrass had so many more ideas about 9/11 and his intention was that there would be no way a viewer could have picked up on everything he created in the film. He also discusses the beginning of the movie and his own belief that not only did those terrorist hijack a plane, but they hijacked and twisted a religion as well. Insights like that are worth consideration and Greengrass has definitely opened the film up for discussion. He isn’t one of those directors that jump on a film and do whatever they want to. As the writer as well as director, he knew the agenda for his project and it had nothing to do with drawing attention to his good work.
Finally, while this review is for the single disc version, there is a two-disc edition available. I was able to view a special feature made specficially for that set entitled “Chasing Planes: Witnesses to 9/11.” This extra follows more of what happened on that day through the eyes of all the Air Traffic Control personnel and military. It's full of interviews, actual sound clips from 9/11, and shots from the movie. At close to an hour long it is a wonderful edition to United 93. Total, it’s one of those films that while you may not watch it often, certainly belongs as a sturdy addition to any DVD collection.