Crash Courses

United 93

Lewis Alsamari, JJ Johnson, Trish Gates, and Polly Adams star in a film written and directed by Paul Greengrass.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

Much ink and chatter has been spilled about the very existence of the film United 93, apart from whether it’s any good. This, after all, is the first Hollywood film addressing the dark and ominous subject of that day, and some fear that the film is crassly exploiting, for commercial gain, an American tragedy of mythic proportions. (This, of course, is discounting the first major public piece of 9/11-related art, Neil Young’s 2001 song “Let’s Roll,” celebrating the heroism of the United 93 passengers who opted to rush the terrorists rather than go passively to their demise.)

The good news is that United 93 is a fine and fascinating piece of filmmaking, dealing sensitively with the subject and, if anything, putting a public face on the passengers on that infamously doomed flight. The bad news is … there is no bad news. Those who say 9/11 should be off-limits for movie-makers and other artists, on the grounds of its being ripe for exploitation, ignore the inevitable function of art to deal with human concerns and to hopefully bring about catharses and even traces of healing.

United 93’s writer-director Paul Greengrass steers fairly clear of psychology, on both the victim and terrorist side. Rather, he tries to just get inside of that plane, from pre-boarding rituals to the fatally fast approaching Pennsylvania field. United 93’s main goal, it seems, is to present as clear a view as possible of the progression of events that fateful morning. In the case of this plane, that means expanding the dramatic scale beyond simply the flight itself.

To that end, Greengrass deftly tracks the general attack through the unfolding, objective knowledge in flight-control rooms and a military base, in which many of the “actors” actually play themselves, reliving that terrible day onscreen. This film wisely adopts a coolly naturalistic, almost cinema verité or reality programming approach, and also avoids using familiar actors; these tactics help to amp up the realism and the empathy we feel.

A domino theory colored the story of United 93. Because of a delay, the flight was out of sync with the terrorists’ general plan, which meant that the passengers were told about the WTC on phones in the air. Armed with the knowledge of their probable crash course, several passengers thus heroically plotted their attack on the attackers. The film’s crescendo of anxiety builds up to a scene of almost unbearable tension, but it is a complex emotional climax, the likes of which may never have been captured on film, given our connection to the real story — a crazed mixture of rage, vindication, hope, and impending doom.

Thankfully, United 93 is a relatively gentle and thoughtful opening of the window on the subject we’d like to forget, but never will. We’ve begun on high ground. We can now probably expect a rush of crasser wares on the subject.

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