UNITED 93   

Paul Greengrass's powerful film is a brave and important flashback to a deeply painful time

PopcornReel.com Film Review: "United 93"

By Omar P.L. Moore/April 26, 2006

Paul Greengrass's brave, intense and shattering film absorbs us from the opening images of several men praying.  From that moment, until its conclusion almost one hour and 35 minutes later, we have been cinematically told about what happened on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.  Or have we?  The director of "United 93" makes very clear, through both the suspenseful narrative and numerous integral characters, that many things remain unclear about what occurred on the flight and what happened on that fateful day.

The hand-held and fixed cameras, which shake violently at key moments and wobble and float at others, is a powerful character unto itself.

"United 93", in minute-by-minute real time (just over 90 minutes), chronicles the events surrounding and within United Airlines Flight 93, which innocently departed on a sunny late summer morning on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 from Newark Airport in New Jersey, bound for San Francisco.  We sit bracing for what we know will come, yet we are jolted in horror when it does.  The violence, though mostly unseen, is, courtesy of quick editing and sound effects, unnerving and rather unsettling.  An R-rated film such as this wisely substitutes full-on graphic gore and goes instead with subtle but disquieting imagery -- quick shots of a bloodied hand or shirt -- which still make for a distressing experience, but the trip is worth it.  The film feels like a documentary (the film intersperses clips of actual cable television news footage of the World Trade Center towers being hit and of smoke rising from the Pentagon), yet the remarkable camera work puts us onboard the plane with the souls who would meet their end.



Actors Becky London and Tom O'Rourke play Jean and Donald Peterson; actors Trish Gates plays Sandra Bradshaw, Tara Hugo plays Kristin White Gould, Opal Alladin plays CeeCee Lyles in Paul Greengrass's "United 93".  Photos: Jonathan Olley/Universal Studios


The uncomfortable journey is worth it because Mr. Greengrass raises questions about NORAD, the air defense system that failed to scramble jets until at least four minutes after Flight 93 crashed.  The director also acknowledges the still little-known fact for some that the military was conducting war game exercises on the same morning when the attacks were occuring.  Mr. Greengrass carefully avoids editorializing on this point, merely dropping hints through rapid dialogue.  The other potent moments of "United 93" come when the air traffic control tower employees are frantically investigating what is going on and cross-talking in a desperate attempt to find out what is happening.  Some real life people who were actually there on that day, in the nerve center of operations, such as FAA Virginia operations manager Ben Sliney, appears prominently in this film and he surely isn't acting as he relives the nightmare once again.  He is a riveting figure throughout "United 93".

The actors do enough to make this film take off, for lack of a better word -- whether it be the crew members, the hijackers, or the passengers, who make every move, reaction and grimace real and immediate.  The somber music and the ending is devastating to be sure, but it is an important trip.  "United 93" is a horror movie without the gore.  The audience will bring its own individual fears, memories, information and subconscious to it.  Mr. Greengrass's film is like that awful roller coaster ride you don't want to take, but feel compelled to -- if only just once, to get it over with.  In press notes for the film, the director says that "one of the reasons why United 93 holds such a powerful hold on our imaginations is precisely because we don't know exactly what happened."

Paul Greengrass is right -- and thankfully he declines to make a tidy Hollywood version of events.  With "United 93" he dignifies the victims, paying them, their families -- and the audience -- as continuing mourners, the utmost respect.


Copyright 2006.  PopcornReel.com.  All Rights Reserved.

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