When it happened, for those of us watching it on TV from our living rooms and offices, the events of September 11th seemed almost like some Hollywood disaster movie. When the World Trade Center fell, many might not have been surprised to see the name Roland Emmerich emblazoned somewhere in the breaking news broadcast's credits. But now that day is a movie; a movie which, oddly enough, feels every bit as real as that day didn't.
On September 11th four planes were hijacked by murderous terrorists. Three reached their targets, causing thousands of deaths. One did not. This is the story of the random collection of passengers who stopped it. Directed by Paul Greengrass, United 93 approaches its subject in almost documentary style. It's a lot like a re-enactment, only done up with all the power and slick of a big studio budget. Greengrass takes the known facts of what happened on United Flight 93 that day, and simply puts them up on screen in a linear format. In between the lines of absolute fact, he does as little coloring in as possible. What coloring must be done is handled by his mostly unknown group of actors, improvising the natural reactions of people confronted with a terrorist takeover and then the certainty of their death. The result is something much, much too real.
This is a brutal, heart-rending film. You won't enjoy watching it. There's nothing entertaining here, only an experience of sadness, despair, and mind numbing anger. As I braced myself in my chair, clenched my fists in rage, and pulled my hat down over my eyes to fight off tears I asked myself: "But isn't this what it should be?" Greengrass has handled this open wound with all the delicacy and respect possible. There's no way this movie could have been made better. It's no wonder that the surviving families of those on the plane approved it. United 93 doesn't go for trumped up heroism or cartoonish villainy, at every turn it chooses a path of complete filmmaking honesty.
This isn't a movie; it is a testament to what happened that day. Not just on the plane, but on the ground as government officials struggled mightily to understand what was going on and react. A great deal of United 93 is spent setting the stage for what was happening around that one flight. The confusion and failure of various government agencies fighting to do something figures prominently, as flight controllers start reporting planes off course and all hell breaks loose. Greengrass's film takes the respectful stance that it wasn't the individuals that comprised the FAA or the military or even the Presidency that failed on September 11th, it was the institution.
United 93 re-awakens all the anger and outrage of the day with clean, factual re-telling focused on and around the small scale war going on inside a single plane. Only now with the confusion and shock of those first weeks erased and the war it started still completely unresolved, it's a more sharpened, burning anger. To call United 93 a powerful film is a gross understatement. It's a punch in the gut rallying call that begs people to wake the hell up and either stop or destroy the people and cultures of hatred, fanaticism, and indifference which caused it.
In a perfect world everyone should see this film, but the reality here is that not everyone can handle this movie. United 93 is almost too much to bear. Greengrass softens none of the blows of these horrific events. He displays them in all their terrifying infamy. He's done an amazing thing here, but few will have the stomach to make it all the way through. If you do and you have any soul at all, you'll leave in a completely unstable, emotional tumult. Don't see United 93 unless you are sure you're ready for it.