The image above isn't taken directly from Paul Greengrass' United 93 (2006), but both represent something much larger than what's on display. It is, of course, the recovered flight data recorder of that doomed Boeing 757; the last plane to crash on September 11th and the only one that failed to reach its intended target. Discovered some 25 feet down at the site of impact near Shanksville, Pennsylvania (roughly 130 miles west of my hometown, Harrisburg), this recorder was one of the only existing tools used to decipher what exactly happened after the plane was hijacked.
United Airlines Flight 93 took off for San Francisco at 8:42 am, following roughly 42 minutes of routine traffic delays. Four Islamic fundamentalists took control of the aircraft by force just before 9:30 am, changing the plane's destination to Washington, DC. Armed with knives and a bomb---the latter of which was eventually discovered to be a fake---the hijackers held the passengers at bay, stabbing several to death in the process. The passengers and remaining crew attempted to regain control shortly thereafter, but the plane went down just after 10:00 am. Forty innocent passengers and crew members were on board, but none survived the flight. That much is certain, according to the 9/11 Commission, the cockpit voice recorder, the flight data recorder (above) and numerous phone calls made by passengers during the incident. The exact details may never be known...but they can be speculated, based on the facts.
Though it's not the first film to re-enact the fate of that doomed flight, United 93 is perhaps the most self-aware and affecting. Other tragedies that day---including the destruction of the World Trade Center and the damage done to the Pentagon---are briefly touched upon, but this story remains largely self-contained. We see the incident through the eyes of the FAA and the military as they scramble to get their bearings, but it's mostly seen from the perspective of those on board. Numerous phone calls are made to friends and family members, either for confirmation of other tragedies or their final goodbyes. Though much of what takes place on board is purely speculative, it's completely plausible at every turn. First-time viewers will likely sit, frozen in shock, just as we did while watching the original events unfold.
Largely populated by unknown actors and real-life participants playing themselves, United 93 feels like a horrifying documentary peppered by brief dashes of dramatization. Paul Greengrass has stuck with the shaky, hand-held look employed in The Bourne Sumpremacy, while the relative obscurity of those onscreen ensures that we're not playing "spot the celebrity". The simple but competent production avoids flashy effects, most notably during the brilliantly understated closing moments. Though a few aspects of certain characters still bothered me---including the complete lack of initiative by the flight attendants---United 93 does a fantastic job of avoiding Hollywood formulas, especially since it's such an easy target. Essential viewing for anyone affected by the tragedy, it's easily one of the better films of 2006 thus far.
Presented on DVD by Universal in both one and two-disc packages, United 93 is rounded out nicely by an excellent technical presentation and a few noteworthy extras. This two-disc Limited Edition only holds a slight advantage overall (despite being considerably harder to track down), though serious fans of the film should still find it worth the trouble. All things considered, this is a fairly potent release in all departments, only slightly hampered by a lack of technical-related supplements. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced for widescreen displays, United 93 looks excellent from start to finish. The slightly muted color palette is bold but natural, while the overall transfer remains crisp and dirt-free. Other problems, such as edge enhancement and digital combing, don't seem to be an issue with this release. Overall, this is a fantastic visual presentation that won't disappoint.
The 5.1 Dolby Surround mix (also available in a Spanish or French 5.1 dub) is equally impressive, boasting clear dialogue and ample surround activity when appropriate. Also included here is a DVS (Descriptive Video Service) track---utilized in many other Universal releases, including Cinderella Man---in which a narrator describes each scene in detail. English captions are provided during all content, while French and Spanish subtitles are included for the film only.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Cold and straightforward, the menu designs for United 93 (presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, seen above) are smooth, simple and easy to navigate. The 111-minute main feature has been divided into 20 chapters, while no discernable layer change was detected during playback. This two-disc set is housed inside a slim double keepcase, which also includes a glossy slipcover and a promotional insert.
Heavily favoring the emotional content of the film over the technical, this two-disc release boasts a modest but appropriate mix of bonus material. First up is a feature-length Audio Commentary with director Paul Greengrass, who candidly discusses the extreme difficulty in approaching such a sensitive subject. He takes the time to point out several actors who portray themselves, but mostly discusses the film's overall tone and careful attempts to remain as accurate as possible. Greengrass wisely leaves the closing sequences open-ended, though a few of his final comments nearly border on groan-inducing. The director also mentions a few excised scenes---including a more elaborate "Afghanistan" opening sequence---but unfortunately, no extra footage has been included here.
Also of interest is "United 93: The Families and the Film" (presented in 16x9 widescreen, 59:50 total), a thoughtful documentary with footage of several actors meeting the real-life families of the victims they're portraying. It's a bit unnerving to see such private moments captured on film, but this tastefully done piece is well worth watching. On a similar note, we also get several text-based Memorial Pages of each and every United 93 victim, many of which are penned by friends and family members. Closing things out is a brief but moving Preview for the 2003 Academy Award-winning short documentary, Twin Towers (2:14), directed by Bill Guttentag and Robert David Port.
Disc 2 is a bit disappointing on the whole, as it's only home to one exclusive bonus feature: "Chasing Planes: Witnesses to 9/11" (48:02, seen above), a retrospective featurette told from a military perspective. No disrespect intended, but it basically recounts the first 40 minutes of the film---that is, the events that led to the destruction of the World Trade Center. Surprisingly enough, the remainder of the day isn't really covered, making this feel like only one chapter of a more cohesive documentary. The main attraction to this piece, of course, is the number of interviews with real-life participants, many of which appeared in the film as themselves. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen---despite being advertised on the packaging as 1.33:1---"Chasing Planes" is still interesting in its own right, though it almost feels superfluous in context. Even so, the featurette is put together skillfully and certainly worth a viewing. Presented with optional English captions and French or Spanish subtitles, it fits in nicely but still feels slightly out of place.
It's certainly a tough film to sit through, but the chilling United 93 is a fitting tribute to what happened five years ago. Devoid of mawkish sentimentality and slow-motion flag waving, United 93 carefully treads the line between accepted facts and "what might have been", mainly drifting towards the latter during its final moments. The participation of mostly unknown actors---not to mention several real-life participants---only strengthens the film's effect. Universal's excellent DVD presentation does the film justice, boasting a strong technical presentation and a few noteworthy bonus features. The one-disc edition should be fine enough for most fans of the film, but this slightly meatier two-disc presentation---though increasingly becoming harder to find---is still a worthy addition to any collection. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, mocking passers-by and writing things in third person.