In making a film about the tragedy of United Airlines flight 93 -- the hijacked plane that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001 -- there are a million ways to screw it up. Too much Hollywood-style bravado and overstatement rings false. Too strong a focus on the "action" elements does a disservice to the victims, turning them from real people into Schwarzenegger clichés. In fact, we're so accustomed to movies being un-real even when portraying real events, it seems almost impossible for someone to do it in a way that won't seem exploitative and distasteful.
Yes, there are a million ways to screw up a film like "United 93." And "United 93" dodges every single one of them.
As observers had hoped, writer/director Paul Greengrass turns out to have been the perfect choice for such sensitive material. His "Bloody Sunday" (about the British army's attack on Irish civil rights marchers in 1972) and "The Bourne Supremacy" (that rare sequel that improves on its predecessor) were both masterpieces of the cinema verite style, giving the action a sense of immediacy and realism while still, in the case of "Bourne," providing entertainment, too.
"Bourne" became famous for its car-chase climax. Here's what I wrote about that sequence at the time:
"Some will complain about the shaky cameras, but for me, it makes it that much more intense. No longer do I feel safe, comfortably watching the mayhem as it's slickly photographed and projected back to me. With this sequence, I feel like I'm in it, being pummeled and beaten along with the cars and their drivers."
Regarding an earlier sequence in that film, I wrote this:
"I note a particularly wicked fist-, knife- and magazine-fight that is shot with hand-held cameras and without musical accompaniment that feels like it could be happening in the apartment next door. Compare this with most Hollywood action scenes, which feel like they could only happen in a movie."
Both of these descriptions apply just as well to "United 93." Music is used sparingly (and to great emotional effect, without being cheesy), and the same you-are-there camerawork is employed to create a vividly realistic atmosphere.
And truthfully, what other way could the traumatic events of 9/11 be re-created in a movie? Anything false or contrived or Hollywood-ish would be offensive, and would seem to be using the true story to create entertainment. "Entertaining" is definitely not something "United 93" strives to be.
The film's focus is United 93 specifically. But since that plane took off after the others, and since the passengers became aware of the other hijackings through mid-flight phone calls to loved ones, all the events of 9/11 come into play. We're with air-traffic control personnel when the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We're onboard United 93 when its four hijackers take control and threaten to detonate a bomb. We're with the military as they scramble to protect New York and then Washington, while the air-traffic centers slowly realize United 93 has been taken, too.
Eventually, the focus subtly shifts to United 93 exclusively. It dawns on us that while we had been cutting back and forth between the flight, the military, and the various air-traffic control centers, we haven't cut away from the plane in a while now. We're in it for the long haul. The passengers can't escape, and neither can we. We'll be with them until the end.
What struck me again and again was how in every situation, Greengrass makes exactly the right choice. Not long after United 93 takes off, the pilot tells passengers on the left side of the plane that they'll have a beautiful view of Manhattan. Any other director would have then zoomed in on a cabin window's view of the still-standing Twin Towers as a means of ominous foreshadowing, perhaps with a blast on the musical score, too. But Greengrass does nothing of the kind. Instead, as the camera moves casually through the cabin, we see just a glimpse of the tops of the towers through the bottom of someone's window. No attention is drawn to it; you might not even see it.
Near the end of the ordeal, passengers are praying, some of them reciting the Lord's Prayer. At the same time, the hijackers are praying to their God. Again, another director would have made something out of this, cutting back and forth and making sure we noticed the parallels. Greengrass simply lets both events happen, not calling attention but not hiding them, either.
In every instance where it might have been tempting to underline something, or to give a character a "meaningful" piece of dialogue, or to establish a "message," Greengrass resists. Even one passenger's famous last words -- "Let's roll" -- are dropped as a throwaway line, lest they become an action-movie catchphrase.
There are very few recognizable faces among the actors, and Greengrass even got some participants -- including FAA manager Ben Sliney -- to play themselves, basically re-enacting what they did and said on 9/11. Most of the dialogue on the plane is speculative, of course, but it feels natural and believable and unrehearsed. The film has no "star," no lead character. We never even learn any of the passengers' names. Why would we? It's not like they're introducing themselves to one another.
Even without being told, we get the feeling the film has been meticulously researched. It has that air of authenticity and factuality. As a result, we trust it to be straight with us, and not to manipulate the facts toward any particular agenda.
The effect of all this? The most powerfully gripping film I've ever seen. It's a masterpiece of craft, to be sure, and something would-be filmmakers should study shot by shot. But it's also an emotional, visceral story, one that overwhelms and consumes the viewer, completely immersing us in the urgency of the day.
So why would anyone want to see it? An apt parallel might be "The Passion of the Christ." Both movies are intense re-enactments of real events that end with the death of the victim(s). In both cases, we already know the basic story; we aren't interested in seeing surprises or twists.
Where the comparison ends, crucially, is that while "Passion of the Christ" was too grotesquely brutal to be endured more than once, I already want to see "United 93" again. Not because it's "entertaining," but because I'm in awe of Greengrass' talents and I want to more carefully examine the mechanics of how he did it, the camera angles, the cuts, the subtle shifts in focus, all of that. As a FILM, it's extraordinary, so brilliantly put together that it looks effortless.
But as an EXPERIENCE, it's extraordinary, too. So many films seek to disturb us with prurient horrors and fetishistic violence, and they're often effective at it. There's a sense of fun at having endured something gruesome like "The Hills Have Eyes" or "The Devil's Rejects." But cinematic abortions like those make you feel like you need a shower afterward. "United 93" had exactly the opposite effect: It made me feel cleansed. It's a cathartic, purifying experience, like having all your emotions washed away so you can start fresh.
As devastated as I was after seeing it -- weak at the knees, my muscles sore from being tensed constantly during the final minutes, on the verge of a complete sobbing breakdown -- I also felt invigorated at having experienced something so ennobling and pure.
It's a sensitive, brilliant, uncynical re-creation, one that seeks not to exploit the dead but to commemorate them. It does this by telling the story as truthfully as possible, without Hollywood bombast, gratuitous violence or fake heroism. It doesn't reek of self-importance or false humility, the way so many "important" films do. It speaks to us honestly, not mincing words and not shying away from the horrors inherent to the story. It's a stunning piece of work.