One of the most engaging, mesmerizing and emotional pictures of the year, "United 93" is a powerful, relatively unbiased and intriguing snapshot of a couple of hours on one of the worst days in American history. Many audiences turned their backs on this picture, claiming it was too soon to tackle such subject matter - people can decide for themselves, but "United 93" deserves a better reception than it has received.
"United 93" is two stories in one - that of the various air traffic controller stations involved in the September 11 attacks, and of the passengers aboard flight United 93, the only airplane that failed to reach its destination (supposedly the Capitol building). Based on evidence found in the black box, the passengers revolted to bring down the plane, though most of the actual happenings on board the plane are guesswork.
Director Paul Greengrass has delivered a blatantly suspenseful and riveting drama despite the fact that you know how things are going to end and that you know that all characters on board the plane are going to die. After 2000's "The Perfect Storm" left a foul taste in many people's mouths for giving us a fictional tale of a true story where everyone dies at the end (not exactly the way you want most movies to end), this is a hard feat to accomplish, but Greengrass doesn't flinch for a moment. He presents the story's happenings as is, without trying to interject [too much] extra drama, emotion or "excitement" into something that already has too much. The movie is fast-paced, highly engaging and, most of all, breathtaking.
For me, my number one concern going into this movie was not whether it was too soon for me to be watching something about 9-11, but whether the film would be unbiased in its approach. This is not to say that America wasn't the victims on this particular day, but time allows filmmakers and historians alike to look at a situation with a more two-sided approach. My biggest fear was that "United 93," or the upcoming Oliver Stone picture "World Trade Center," would be a patriotic tear-jerker, where the terrorists are portrayed as pure evil and the passengers as perfect protagonists. Instead, Greengrass keeps things unbiased, and presents the terrorists as human beings with at least some reservations about doing what they are doing, even if their extreme views of faith have led them to do what they believe is in their best interest, in some misguided kind of way. I particularly liked the performance by the terrorist pilot.
Surprisingly, the best parts of the movie do not take place on the airplane but instead are on the ground. A good half of the movie is devoted to the logistical operations that occurred as the air traffic controllers and those in charge of American airspace attempted to deal with the fact that their country was under attack. In a very straightforward yet still powerful way, Greengrass takes us through the first moments when flights appear to be getting hijacked, yet no one can fathom it, to the first hit upon the World Trade Center, to the realization that a dozen more flights may be under attack. Even more impressive, Greengrass employed the use of many of the real people involved in that day to act in his film. All of the so-called non-actors are extremely convincing; even though they are playing themselves, being yourself at your job and being yourself in a movie are two completely different things.
"United 93" is not for everyone, but for anyone who can even fathom stomaching the events of September 11, this one is a must-see. Come award time, I hope this film is not ignored due to its subject matter and release date.
Now out on DVD in both one-disc and two-disc editions, this film probably isn't going to be a top-seller, but will hopefully be a big rental. It was a shame more people didn't see the film in theaters - they are truly missing out - but if you are to purchase the DVD, which one should you get?
Of course, you'd want to buy the two-disc version, because aside from the obvious that it has more features, it has better features, namely a 40-minute documentary that interviews the people involved with the flight traffic on September 11 - several of whom appear in the film. Another documentary, which shows actors meeting the families of the deceased people they are to play in the movie, is perhaps a bit more emotional but much less informative.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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