Grade: C-United 93 (2006)

Director: Paul Greengrass

Stars: Lewis Alsamari, Cheyenne Jackson, David Alan Basche

Release Company: Universal Studios

MPAA Rating: R

Official Site

Greengrass: United 93


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United 93 is not a film to enjoy; it's an experience to be endured at best—not much different than visiting the dentist for a root canal and needing a heart transplant when you leave. Just what audience writer/director Paul Greengrass aims for with his docu-drama remains a puzzle. Akin to watching 111 minutes of George Clooney's fingernail yanking Syriana sequence, masochistic voyeurs will find fulfillment, along with people who want to rekindle the anger sparked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

There's a reason that most effective war movies have waited a decade or more before going into production. Time grants perspective. John Wayne's flag waving 1968 Green Berets remains a humorous footnote to Vietnam era films that followed (Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon). Fifty years passed before Steven Spielberg would take on graphic details surrounding D-Day, but even that wasn't enough time for my dad to be able to stomach Saving Private Ryan. He hated Spielberg's film because he knew a number of army buddies who died on Omaha Beach.

I feel similarly about Greengrass' film even though I don't know anyone personally who perished on that ill fated United flight. Like many contemporaries, I certainly saw enough on CNN and read enough accounts to become familiar with as many anecdotes and facts as possible. I also attended some Amway conventions that promoted a hero mythology that came from United Flight 93; they even created a tape entitled "Roll On" that used the courage of the passengers as its extended metaphor.

On the positive side, Greengrass sincerely simulates the flight without the manipulative mythology. I just didn't need a film to recreate this scenario. Perhaps others may.

Although United 93 is made with the full support of the families of those on board, it's hard to imagine that they would want to see the film. Using it as a historical homage and memorial makes sense; Universal Pictures provides a donation link on the official website, which itself serves as a memorial to the victims. Future generations that didn't experience these events in real time will find its content much more palatable—certainly a better homage than a fictional love story starring future Leo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet stand-ins.

United 93 strives to re-enact the horror of 9/11 objectively while thrusting viewers into a not so fun thrill ride with its furious hand held camera-work that chaotically captures the fear and frenzy within the hijacked plane and air traffic control towers in real time. Highly realistic, the ensemble cast of unknown actors and even some real life U.S. Military Air Traffic Controllers dutifully carry out their anonymous roles. Greengrass avoids making any single individuals into flesh and blood characters to carry the film; we are expected to empathize with their plight as a simple principle of humanity.

It really doesn't take much work to provide broad brush strokes to delineate the good from evil here--the passengers have family members that they talk about and make phone calls to while the terrorists are on their own and bent on suicidal fanaticism. Ironically, the one terrorist that Greengrass lingers on the most is a conflicted one who attempts to get his more impatient comrades to wait for "the right time." He even opens the film with this character devoutly reading the Qu'ran and praying. While this could be fodder for post mortem discussions about how religion can become perverted for political agendas, it's more likely reawaken anti-Muslim prejudices.

As with his previous films Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy, Greengrass shines best when illuminating complexities and political intrigue. You can't fault any individual within the Federal Aviation Association, the military, nor the White House when the airwaves over Manhattan and Washington D.D. erupted in complete chaos. Greengrass shows that this was a systematic institutional failure. With hindsight, viewers will grimace as the officials attempt to make sense of the unfathomable, so the film does manage to communicate how these events caught the government with its pants down.

Wielding a Blair Witch Project cinematic style, the filmmaker does deliver a film that plays much like a documentary, and the hype surrounding the production emphasizes how much research and care was taken to present the facts. Seeing how the audience was transported back to that horrific day, I found some moments of conjecture almost as disturbing as memories of the events themselves. The one that stands out is where the most "sympathetic" terrorist places a picture of the Capitol building on the cockpit steering wheel. I literally heard viewers around me gasp at this moment, as if this film presentation was actually capturing the real event and confirming what is considered the most likely theory of the plane's intended target.

Another scenario does make more sense than the heroic self-sacrificial theory that many adopted immediately after 9/11. Through air phone calls the passengers realize that they aren't headed back to safety, so the counter attack against the terrorists is depicted primarily as a desperate attempt for survival. While this provides the ultimate climax and a catharsis to see the terrorists being taken down, the frenetic camera motion that blends the nameless participants into a colorful blur smacks of one last example of lazy film-making. That makes the final black screen the best one in the film--a welcome relief from cinematic Hell.

See United 93 if you must, but I can't recommend it. This is a case where the film's official website has more value than the film itself. It's also an instance of a film that will have much more value for future generations that didn't go through continuous media coverage of the horrendous 9/11 events first hand..

 


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