Phil on Film Index

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Review - United 93

So here it is. Almost five years after the tragic terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, United 93 is the first big-screen attempt to deal directly with the events of that fateful day. The film’s release has been met with cries of “too soon” by many Americans; but if Hollywood doesn’t deal with 9/11 now, then when? In any case, surely the point is not the timing but the treatment. It certainly would be too soon for a 9/11 movie which deals with its subject in a sensationalistic, exploitative and overly sentimental style, but United 93 doesn’t fit that bill. The director here is Paul Greengrass, a British filmmaker whose work thus far has been characterised by a documentary-style realism and rigorous intelligence; surely he’s the perfect choice for such sensitive material.

United 93 is the story of the one hijacked plane which failed to reach its target on 9/11. After the first two planes had hit the World Trade Centre, and another had crashed into the Pentagon, the passengers on this flight quickly realised that this was no ordinary hijack. They knew they were caught up in a suicide mission and soon decided to take their fate into their own hands. The passengers banded together and attempted to wrestle control of the plane back from the four terrorists. United Airlines flight 93 came down in a field in Pennsylvania; none of the passengers survived, but how many lives had been spared through their actions?

How does one even begin to review a film like this? In truth, it hardly feels like a film at all; this meticulous reconstruction of that extraordinary day feels more like an event, a testament to the bravery of ordinary human beings when faced with certain death. I have my criticisms of the film, but how does a reviewer find flaws in such a project without being seen to besmirch the achievements of the real-life passengers, or to dispute the good intentions of everyone involved in bringing
United 93 to the screen?

First of all, I should point out that
United 93 is a technically brilliant piece of filmmaking. Greengrass utilises the same shaky handheld style he brought to his superb Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy, and crafts every scene with the emphasis on authenticity. The film opens with the hijackers in their hotel room, reciting their prayers, and the early scenes of various people arriving at the airport, checking in, and taking their seats, are as unexceptional and mundane as they must have been on the day itself. Greengrass hasn’t cast any known actors in the film, and as we watch these early passages unfold we scan the unheralded faces, wondering who will later lead the onboard fight for survival.

Ultimately, we never get to know any of these people very well. Greengrass’ technique is to throw us into the middle of the situation, and we only learn what we may have learned if we had been sitting next to the passengers on the plane. Perhaps this is why
United 93 feels so curiously empty. Bloody Sunday was likewise a gritty, realistic examination of a tragic event; but Greengrass had the good sense to place James Nesbitt at the centre of that film, to allow him to be the vessel for our anger, sadness and dismay. United 93 gives us a group of anonymous people, and while the actors are all very impressive in their attempts to depict the rising sense of fear, the film never really exerted the stranglehold atmosphere I had been led to expect.

There are two moments however which really got to me. One occurs late in the film, when the passengers have accepted that they will probably not survive the attempt to take back the plane and are tearfully making phone calls back to their families, telling them that they love them one last time. The raw emotion on display here makes these moments hard to endure; we really start to experience a tangible sense of what’s being lost. The other moment which was hard to take was a little more surprising to me. The sight of the second plane hitting the World Trade Centre chilled me to the bone and brought tears to my eyes. I have seen this footage replayed over and over again since 9/11, but seeing it on the big screen, in this context, reminded me of the impact it had when I first saw it live five years ago.

And this brings me to the overriding question I was left with after viewing
United 93 - why has this film been made? As a reconstruction of the onboard events it is certainly commendable, and the bravery of the passengers who took their lives into their own hands deserves to be remembered; but I don’t see what else the film has to offer. None of us have forgotten 9/11, nor are we ever likely to; so what is the purpose of a film which simply takes us step-by-step through events we’re already all too familiar with, if it doesn’t give us some additional insight along the way? United 93 is carefully apolitical. It does depict the breakdown in leadership which stalled the US response to the escalating tragedy, with none of the military personnel able to reach the president and confusion reigning over the best way to tackle the situation; and Greengrass makes the fairly pointless move of having the sole European passenger be the only person who insists on negotiating with the terrorists instead of taking them on. Otherwise, the film never tries to look at the bigger picture of 9/11, and it’s hard to see what other purpose it serves.

While much of what actually took place on board the flight is conjecture, Greengrass is on firmer ground when he deals with the action in the various air traffic control centres and military bases which were monitoring the situation. In many ways, these scenes are the most successful. Greengrass is strong on depicting the dawning realisation of what exactly was going on that day, and we can relate to these people watching in stunned silence as the planes hit the World Trade Centre, because we’ve been there. We know what it’s like to see this kind of horror unfold, to be completely impotent in the face of a devastating attack; and these ground-based scenes were actually much more engaging for me than most of the action in the air. If there’s a hero in
United 93, then it must be FAA Operations Manager Ben Sliney. September 11th 2001 was his first day in the job and when the true scale of the attack was evident he made the call to ground every plane currently in US airspace. Sliney has already lived through this once and here he plays himself brilliantly, becoming the closest thing the film has to a fully-rounded character.

Greengrass builds a fair amount of tension as the time comes for the passengers to act, and the final ten minutes has a frenetic power as the passengers and terrorists fight clumsily for control of the aircraft. The plane plummets to the ground and the camera cuts to black; but as I left the cinema I still couldn’t quite shake the feeling that
United 93 was missing something.

Ultimately what
United 93 is missing is some sort of insight, and perhaps this brings us back to this question of “too soon”. Of course, it’s never too soon to honour brave human beings, but maybe United 93 needed more time to gain a sense of perspective on 9/11, a world-changing event which we are still feeling the consequences from every day. I didn’t learn anything from United 93 which I didn’t know before, and while I have full admiration for everyone involved for being the first to tackle this unenviable storytelling task, I don’t know if their film has the necessary impact to live on in the memory. United 93 is a brave, intelligent and impeccably made film; but it feels somewhat redundant if the only purpose it serves is to remind us about events which are unforgettable.