The one essential 9/11 film you should go out of your way to reckon with. United 93 (2006) doesn’t use movie stars. In fact, some of the men and women that orchestrated communications in the traffic control towers are played by the real people themselves. Paul Greengrass’ jittery and shivery film is a verite documentary-style reenactment of the morning tragedies of September 11, 2001, giving us a detailed experience that acts out in real time.
This is the story of scared men and women, either trapped in an airplane occupied by bomb-strapped terrorists on Flight 93, or those on the ground in mission control looking for answers while thunderstruck by the fact terrorists have attacked America. Four planes are hijacked, nearly all within a 90-minute frame time, and as air traffic control attempts to corroborate the information with the military you hold your hands in a clutch waiting to see how they plan to remedy the situation.
Forgive the initial disbelief at first when the first plane is hijacked, in consideration that there hasn’t been an incident on U.S. soil of a hijacking in what is said to be many years. But then a second plane is hijacked. Radio dispatches try to make sense of the information, and are disturbed when they disappear off the radar screen.
One plane crashes into the Twin Towers. FAA director Ben Sliney (playing himself) isn’t sure at first, and believes it might be a private charter plane of some kind. But an enormous chunky hole in the building points to the evidence that it is a commercial plane. The tower waits for the local police to confirm. Again, confusion and disbelief.
Then the second plane hits the Twin Towers. The concentration on protecting New York from anymore crash landings becomes a priority. But the military can’t seem to get approval from President Bush to take advanced action because of his failure to take command – the film handles this by cutting around to different military and police stations standing down while they wait for orders. Then there is misinformation that a Delta plane has been hijacked. What happened on 9/11 was horror, and the film treats it as that. This is also a drama about confusion, as well as the grace of men and women who coordinate together to try to come up with solutions while higher powers are unavailable to hand out orders.
The film, without going into any sentimental backgrounds of the passengers of Flight 93, portrays them as ordinary men and women, young and old, shaken senseless once a group of religiously fanatical hijackers take over the plane. Simple and fast, the hijackers remove the pilot and the co-pilot with coldblooded ease. The passengers are paralyzed with what is fear, but also, just shock. Nothing like this has happened before in their comprehension of history. Nothing in America, at least.
Via cell phones, the passengers learn of the other planes that have crashed into the Twin Towers. Soon, another plane will crash into the Pentagon. The flight’s destination, it becomes assumed without doubt, is that the Al Qaeda terrorists are on course on a suicide mission. The hostages have a few brief moments to talk softly to each other. Todd Beamer (character actor David Alan Basche) riles up the stewardesses to find as many weapons towards the back of the plane that are available. Fellow passengers get organized to charge and disarm the terrorists. The rest is a very convincing re-dramatization: Credit the real plane’s black box and cell phone transcriptions, of how the men fought the terrorists in the aisles, making it to the cockpit, and died, crashing into Shanksville, Pennsylvania, while yanking away controls from their captors’ hands at the final moments. The original target was the Pentagon.
Writer-director Paul Greengrass previously had made “Bloody Sunday” (2002) about British troops who slaughtered civil rights activists, and was similarly documentary-style in its objectivity. His newly released “Captain Phillips” is about the Somalian seas hijacking of an America cargo ship. Throughout his films, Greengrass uses his raw rattling camera and editing techniques to create merciless and unsentimental realism as well as quasi-documentary immediacy.
Few movies will be more traumatic than “United 93.” The usefulness of this movie? To use it as a testament to survivors of loved ones and to raise our readiness as a nation against further hostile attacks from foreign nations.
110 Minutes. Rated R.
HISTORICAL DRAMA / TRAGEDY / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Bloody Sunday” (2002, Britain); “Kandahar” (2001, Iran); “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004); “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012).