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Timed for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, United 93 is just as tense and nerve-wracking on Blu-ray as it was theatrically, five years after the events it recreates. It has been criticized for presenting 'one dimensional' characters, but any attempt to dramatize what is already a traumatic catastrophe would have been in extreme bad taste. Audiences were not certain they wanted a recreation of that fateful day, let alone to see 9/11 trivialized as conventional entertainment.
Despite various reviews and articles that questioned its purpose and appropriateness, United 93 did not inspire a controversy in 2006. Every action and event around the attacks had already become the object of fierce political debate, with pundits, candidates and opportunists of every stripe proclaiming their patriotism while exploiting one angle or another. I remember neighbors fearful that terrorist attacks were going to become routine, and I also remember overhearing some teens in a bus callously exclaiming that the TV coverage of the fall of the towers was the coolest thing they'd ever seen. Personally, I told my boys that this was probably going to be the equivalent of their grandparents' Pearl Harbor, and my generation's Vietnam -- yet another formative trauma that would haunt the country for decades. What a rotten way for the nation to begin what had been an optimistic new century and a new millennium.
That many people saw no reason to watch a movie bringing back the trauma of that day is neither here nor there -- I also remember hearing from friends that avoided Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds because its theme was too close to the national mood of unease and insecurity. United 93 wisely avoids any political comment whatsoever, and stays fixed on a strict docudrama approach. We see events unspool at three basic locations. At an air traffic control tower in Newark tries to coordinate a proper response to the attacks, for itself and other airports up and down the East Coast. A military command post conducting a war game exercise also tries to respond properly. On the United Airlines Flight 93, a Newark to San Francisco run, we see four Al Qaeda terrorists wait for their chance to seize control. Their suicide mission is to crash the plane into a target in Washington, D.C., most likely the Capitol Dome. Holding the passengers at bay with a fake bomb, the terrorists kill both pilots and a passenger with small knives. One of them turns the plane back toward Washington D.C.. Over the cabin's air-phones, some of the passengers learn that three other hijacked jets have already hit their targets. Several determine to fight to retake control of the plane. United 93 leaves little to guesswork, in that a lot was learned about events on the plane from passengers that phoned loved ones, often just to say goodbye.
Writer-director Paul Greengrass films everything in a direct manner, highlighting personal moments but wisely refraining from adding anything that might be taken as an ironic comment or editorializing. It's a daunting task, for a filmmaker's normal job is to present an attitude about everything shown on screen. 1 Greengrass uses a mild handheld docu style for many of his dialogue scenes, adding to the sense of isolation in the United Jet and conveying the confusion in the air traffic control rooms.
We discover in the excellent docu featurette Chasing Planes that some of the air traffic personnel, including the man in charge of the Newark base of operations, play themselves. This executive is particularly convincing. We gravitate toward him immediately because, frankly, he's the only authority figure in the whole picture who seems capable of grasping the developing situation and taking charge. His controllers are conscientious problem solvers as well. But the unthinkable, outlandish reality of the attack plan works against anybody forming a timely defense.
If anything, United 93 shows the drawbacks of the Information Age: there's simply too much information pouring in to isolate flights that might be serious problems. At any given moment one or two planes "healthy" airliners may have hazy radar or radio contact, so the experts' are distracted by red herrings. The morning is a horrible game of catch-up. The shock of the first plane hitting a Manhattan tower slows up the response. It is assumed to be a small plane collision almost until the second plane hits. At that point chaos reigns: how many more suicide jet airliner bombs are in flight? What can be done?
Without making a case or pointing fingers, United 93 also shows the failing of the peacetime air defense against the Al Qaeda attack scheme. The officer in charge of flight defense operations can't get straight information on anything; nor does he receive guidance and orders from higher ups, despite repeated pleas. It takes forever to get any planes in the air. The response is so uncoordinated that the military pilots head East, out over the Atlantic, apparently to intercept incoming attackers. Some jets that can be put into action are not even armed. Meanwhile, the civilian supervisor back in the Newark tower shouts and pleads for his military liaison to do his job. The officer reports only that calls have been placed and he's waiting to hear back.
Watching United 93, we don't condemn any of these people. The Al Qaeda attacks are the work of determined, level headed fanatics who shrewdly exploit the non-existent security of domestic flights and use our own civilian aircraft as weapons of war. The real pressure builds on board the doomed plane, where the passengers struggle to maintain their composure, and try to be optimistic about their chances.
Don't be misled by the 'inspirational' taglines for United 93, such as "40 ordinary people sat down as strangers and stood up as one". Greengrass must have used some guesswork with the final struggle on board the airplane, but the fact that the passengers fought back was one of the few pieces of news from that fateful day that isn't totally negative, awful in the extreme. Along with these civilian passengers we have the fire, police and rescue people at the Twin Towers to laud and mourn. Looking for triumphant victory and pure heroes, we find none and must instead settle for a more realistic definition of heroism, victims that fight back and public servants that leap into danger in the line of duty.
United 93 isn't obsessed with a morbid spectacle, as one might fear. Historically speaking, it stands up well against movies from earlier times, especially wartime shows that were produced to revise history or to give civilians a morale boost. Quotes associated with 9/11 refer to the resistance on United 93 as "the first battle in the War on Terrorism", a loaded statement that might start a heated argument, if Americans of opposing viewpoints were still talking to each other. United 93 may be surrounded by ancillary featurettes and opinions that seek to steer its meaning one way or the other, but the movie itself remains neutral, stubbornly committed to the facts on the record. It is clear that the passengers prevented flight 93 from reaching its target, so the resistance can indeed be likened to a battle. It has alternately been suggested to me that the movie serves to make American viewers angry, more likely to condemn all Muslims and demand military retaliation. I don't see any evidence for that conclusion. United 93 shows what went down in a reasonably true and responsible way. When I think of the kind of film that could been made -- the equivalent of an Orwellian "Two Minutes Hate" -- I personally approve of Greengrass's measured approach. 2
Universal's Blu-ray of United 93 has been marketed to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary. The expected flawless image and audio are present and attest to the film's high standard of technical quality. Greengrass's artistic approach is vindicated in that we expend all of our energy on the film's content, not its technique. The story is already agonizingly suspenseful from the first scene. At a certain point we realize that the Newark control tower has an unobstructed view of the World Trade Center. Trapped outside the movie, we can't warn the controllers that a plane impact will probably come in just a few seconds. Greengrass doesn't need to use cinematic devices to 'create' suspense.
I was surprised by associate producer Michael Bronner's engaging 2006 docu Chasing Planes, which organizes interviews with the actual personnel in charge of the control towers that day. Other featurettes (listed below) memorialize Flight 93 and highlight the experiences and thoughts of surviving family members and colleagues of those that perished.
Universal Blu-ray continues to push for its BD-Live and Pocket BLU app programs. I must not be part of their intended target demographic, as I still see no reason to actively pursue the opportunity to be targeted by more Universal marketing messages. That doesn't reduce my enthusiasm for Universal's quality Blu-ray discs!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
United 93 Blu-ray rates:
1. Weirdly, the structure of United 93 is identical to Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove, in which helpless authority figures meet in packed rooms to try and "solve" a horrible incident that involves mayhem on the ground (mutiny at an Air Force Base) and an uncontrollable jet plane on a doom-laden flight. Of course, Kubrick's film editorializes like crazy -- his film is a live-action political cartoon, and a black comedy.
2. Today is September 3, 2011, and I'm not certain I want to watch any of the planned 'memorial' documentaries expected about 9/11. I'll look for the most politically neutral one I can find.
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Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.