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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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