Review: United 93 (2006)

Director: Paul Greengrass


United 93 is an expectedly sobering viewing experience. Whilst we all recoiled in horror at the events of September 11th 2001, few could imagine the terror experienced by those on board those ill-fated aeroplanes. Writer-director Paul Greengrass captures the fear in a shockingly accurate way that refuses to pander to the crowd. Then again, it’d be impossible to sugar-coat these events, so he might as well go for the all-out horror of the whole situation. Your seat will be drenched in sweat by the end.

United 93 opens on clips of the four men who hijacked UA Flight 93 preparing for their final journey, routinely washing and praying. One of the most frightening aspects of United 93 is that sense of routine; Greengrass captures the feeling that this day should have been like any other, making the inevitable outcome all the more devastating. The passengers and crew, though some became well known after the fact, just pass by fleetingly without mention of their names. There are no conversations between passengers to establish character; refreshingly, there is little to no pandering to narrative convention here. Whereas World Trade Center used the events of 9/11 as a springboard into a personal story, United 93 simply presents events in an almost documentary fashion. Greengrass’ penchant for shaky-cam is used to full effect here, as the cast and DP Barry Ackroyd are flung about the airplane as it turns and plummets. The cast don’t do anything flashy; the banality of the everyday informs their performances, and makes their eventual act of bloodshed all the more shocking. They are helped by the depictions of the various agencies struggling to cope with the hijackings on the ground. The then-head of the Federal Aviation Authority, Ben Sliney plays himself in the film, as do several members of the US Air Force stationed at Rome, NY, as they furiously struggle to contact Air Force One for rules of engagement. Greengrass’ script is based on the phone calls of the passengers and the official 9/11 Commission Report. Whatever details are present or excluded, one thing we can be sure of is the passengers, the crew and even the terrorists were full of fear, and all found a motivation within themselves to do what they felt was necessary. One weakling German passenger aside (one of the few sacrifices to convention), the passengers receive a quick but rounded depiction onscreen. The key is remembering that those who were held up as heroes never intended to be heroic; they wanted to survive, and to see those whom they cared about once more. As Greengrass reminds us, sometimes our most basic needs see us at our best.

From the opening shots to the moment the aeroplane is hijacked lies an unbearable wait for the inevitable. Yet, once it arrives, and once the passengers decide to act there is a sense of catharsis, as we yearn for an outcome that we know can’t come and yet seems possible.  Between his script and direction, all kudos must go to Paul Greengrass for creating a depiction of that sunny September day that is cinematically satisfying, yet never cheapens the memory of the passengers and crew of UA 93. Like so many great films, it challenges and even troubles, but also stirs the senses and reaffirms us. It’s about the best of us. Not of the US, but of us.