My annual review of United 93

Posted by on Sep 11, 2012 in Stories
My annual review of United 93

Every year on September 11th I republish a review of Paul Greengrass’ powerful 2006 masterpiece United 93.

I wrote it for my college newspaper almost six years ago. I post it every year and hope that it convinces people to give the movie a chance. The film was rejected by the public it when it came out all those years ago, but the public has truly been missing out on one of the best films ever made and certainly the best film of 2006.

If you do take the time to read this, take the time to see United 93. To me it still is, and always will be, the finest memorial ever made for the victims of September 11, 2001.

Everyone knew this day would come. The day Hollywood came to offer their version of the events of September 11th 2001.

It would take a true artist to make a good movie about what happened on September 11th and, despite all the mindless films that come out of Hollywood, there are enough artists to go around. However, to make a movie worthy of the heroism and courage that was shown on that day would take more than an artist, it would take inspiration. Inspiration is what found United 93’s director, Paul Greengrass and, after seeing the film, it is hard to imagine anyone else’s vision being as perfect.

United 93 begins with the hijackers in their hotel room, shaving their chests and reciting prayers from the Qur’an. My theater was mostly empty, save for a few guys in baseball jerseys and backwards hats shouting, “What the fuck is this shit?!” upon hearing the holy words of Mohammad spoken in Arabic.

I got the feeling they walked into the theater expecting to see “Dirty” Harry Callahan kick some terrorist ass. I too was looking for some terrorist ass kicking, and at times wished Callahan would show up, turning the horrifying reality of the passenger’s plight into a guns blazing revenge tale. Of course, that would not be the case.

Like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (the other, not as well made, 9/11 movie) United 93 narrows down the scope of the story as much as possible. The film wisely focuses on three groups of characters; the passengers aboard Flight 93, the air traffic controllers and Federal Aviation Administration staff, and the military personnel stationed at the NORAD command center in Colorado.

The action cuts between the three perspectives intermittently and is effective at keeping the audience feeling disoriented without becoming too busy or confusing. Greengrass’s “shaky cam” style of filmmaking has the desired effect of giving every scene a sense of urgency. Although it may seem distracting at first, as the film progresses it becomes much easier to watch and does create the desired atmosphere.

The film’s emotional climax, and the finest moments Greengrass’s vision, come to fruition in the third act, twenty-five heart stopping minutes of cinema that will stun you into silence from the moment the screen fades to black until long after the credits have rolled. The legendary aspect of this tragic story is the attempted retaking of the plane by its doomed passengers, and as would be expected, these are the moments that make the film worth seeing.

Greengrass could only speculate as to what actually happened on board Flight 93 before it crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. What is known is that there was a plot to retake the plane which led to it never reaching its intended target, either the White House or Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Greengrass speculates that the passengers agreed on a plan to charge the cockpit. They probably armed themselves with utensils and seat cushions which really were the only readily available weapons.

They wagered that the bomb the terrorists were brandishing was a fake and that, if they did gain entry to the cockpit, one of the passengers, a trained pilot, could land the plane with help from an air traffic controller. This was, of course, after they fought their way through the box cutters, dining carts and fire extinguishers which were to be used against them.

There is no need to summarize the rest of the film. It is enough to say that, the last few seconds of struggle in the cockpit will leave your palms sweating and fingers ingrained into the armrests of your seat. There was silence from the audience after the film ended, even the rowdy baseball players in awe thanks to Paul Greengrass’s inspired filmmaking.

It pains me to say that, if the opening weekend box office numbers for United 93 continue their current trend, it will probably be the best movie of the year that no one will see, which is a tragedy within itself. With only temporary memorials in place to help America remember those who lost their lives on that Tuesday morning United 93 stands as the greatest memorial of all. A rousing recognition of the power and will of the human spirit that will years from now be recognized as a modern classic.

I don’t believe that America, or the rest of the world, was ready for Hollywood’s take on September 11th but who knows if they ever will be. What Paul Greengrass has given us is more than just a movie.

It is a moving reminder that on America’s darkest day, in its most pressing hours of need, our best defense was not our aircraft carriers or Tomahawk missiles. It was not our M1-A1 tanks or our legions of Apache helicopters. It was not the C.I.A. the N.S.A. or the F.B.I. It wasn’t even the Marines. It was ordinary American citizens armed with nothing more than courage and the desire to live.

In a few swift moments they captured the resiliency of an entire nation, defied the culture of death that drove their attackers and their actions stand as the one failure of Al Qaeda’s otherwise successful plan.

I encourage everyone to see United 93. It is a gift to those who lived through that fateful day. I doubt that whatever eventually comes to stand at the World Trade Center site in New York or on that lonely field in Pennsylvania will be as moving or as magnificent.

Watch the trailer here.