For all the advance criticism that “United 93” has received for being a Hollywood version of our national tragedy on September 11, 2001, the actual film itself is about as far from Hollywood as you can get. British director Paul Greengrass helmed this gripping docudrama that mixes depictions of real-life events (with some of the actual participants) and a good amount of believable and terrifying speculative fiction.
In fact, one thing that legitimately stands out in “United 93” is how little the movie subscribes to traditional filmic conventions like an emotive, recurring music score and recognizable movie stars. Greengrass also used the same approach to chilling effect in 2002’s “Bloody Sunday,” which depicted the events surrounding a 1972 Irish civil rights march that was tragically fired on by British troops.
What makes “United 93” such a controversial film is its closeness to the actual event. Through constant close-ups and unhinged camera movement, it places the viewer right in the middle of a reconstruction that has the air of authenticity. It just plain feels real. Whether you want to see this movie and put yourself in the control room or the cockpit on that day is up to you. Many people have expressed their reservations about seeing it, and those feelings are easily respected. But the amount of respect that Greengrass gives the victims of the hijacking should also be mentioned.
In addition to casting virtual unknowns in the roles, the director filled out his film with non-actors who worked at the air traffic control centers on that day, playing themselves. It is a risky move. By using the actual participants, it only elevates the idea that this is a completely truthful account of that day’s events. While he may reach an impressive degree of closeness or accuracy on the ground, it is impossible to achieve that when depicting what happened on the hijacked airplane.
A sparing use of music lets most of the drama, unfolding in real time, speak for itself. There are no huge orchestral swells building up to a macho catch phrase. In fact, the one iconic line everybody knows (“Let’s rol1”) is at first barely audible, muttered by an intent passenger as an almost afterthought. This is the rare instance where a movie may have more in common with real life than with the canon of other movies.
Although the actors are portraying specific passengers from the actual flight, very few are identified by name. Other than their activities directly before boarding the plane, we are given no background for them to emerge as characters. This helps the group form into a sort of collective protagonaist, one that–precisely due to their anonymity–reflects a familiar face. No extra emphasis is given to one over another, and as their knowledge of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks that day deepens, their heroic decision to do something amidst the choas is almost a foregone conclusion rather than a choice. Life doesn’t slow down for slow motion shots, and neither do these key moments. Underplaying this element adds to both the gravity and tragedy of the situation, both of which can only be fully appreciated after the movie’s inevitable ending.
As realistic as it is tries to be, every shot and editing choice is an expression of interpretation on the part of Greengrass. It has the ring of truth, but a movie can never truly capture truth. If it could, it would be something as artless and voyueristic as a security camera. “United 93” is so much more than that.
One important distinction that should be noted is the film’s depiction of the terrorists. The opening scene belongs to them, praying together before leaving their hotel rooms. There’s no steely-eyed evil here– their faces are wracked with apprehension. Like the horrible dread that permeates every frame of the film, the terrorists show unease as they wait in the terminal and then again on the airplane, exchanging nervous looks before making their intentions known. Their anxiety comes from a mix of purposefulness and the fear of failure. Whether they consider the loss of life on a personal level is unknown. By portraying the terrorists as human beings who are as scared as the passengers, it draws an undeniable parallel to their victims. This commonality, however, is split wide open by the huge, bloody chasm of their willingness to exterminate human life for their “higher purpose.”
Many have asked what the point was in making “United 93.” It is through this complicated exploration of what it means to be human and the downplayed sacrifice of the passengers that the film achieves its greatest poignancy. Knowing what happened is one thing, but the visceral experience of this movie (while realizing that it can never achieve total certainty) is something else entirely.