Press notes for motion pictures are usually filled with dispensable, self-congratulatory puffery, but the one for the soul-searing film "United 93" contains this trenchant comment from its English writer-director, Paul Greengrass: Speaking of the 40 individuals aboard United Airlines Flight 93, the fourth hijacked plane on that day of infamy, Sept. 11, 2001, he notes that these were the only passengers and crew members on any of those ill-fated flights who knew about the other planes having been used as weapons and realized what was happening to them. "They were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world," Greengrass says. These were the first to react to the worldwide conflict we find ourselves in today. Within the microcosm of that reaction, Greengrass has made an emphatic political document, a movie about defiance against tyranny and terrorism.
How many moviegoers will be willing to endure "United 93"? I suspect many will, but what that adds up to in terms of boxoffice is anybody's guess. Understandably, controversy engulfs this film. Is now the right time for such a film? Why make the film at all? These are legitimate questions. No one possesses a "right" answer. But Greengrass has made not only a thoroughly fact-checked film but a film that incontrovertibly comes from the heart.
Greengrass wants the 91 minutes United 93 was in the air to speak to our tenuous situation in a scary, riven world. A previous film by him anticipates this work. The invaluable "Bloody Sunday" (2002), shot as if it were made by a camera crew at the time, dramatized a 1972 incident in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, where 13 unarmed civil rights demonstrators were shot and killed by British soldiers. Here again he takes a hard look at a cataclysmic event to provoke dialogue.
To keep things as accurate as possible, Greengrass reportedly interviewed more than 100 family members and friends of those who perished. He hired flight attendants and commercial airline pilots to play those roles; hired several civilian and military controllers on duty on Sept. 11, including the FAA's Ben Sliney, to play themselves; culled facts from the 9/11 Commission Report; and rehearsed and shot his actors in an old Boeing 757 at England's Pinewood Studios.
Even Barry Ackroyd's hand-held cinematography, John Powell's muted, anxious score and the plane set fixed to computer-controlled motion gimbals to simulate the pitch and roll of the aircraft urge the viewer to think of this as a you-are-there experience. Yet no one really knows what happened on United 93. We have evidence from phone calls made from the plane and those interviews, but that's where it ends. And that is where an artist can pick up the story.
This is what it probably was like, and the experience overwhelms. Time passes in weird ways. The four nervous terrorists wait seemingly forever to make their move. The panicked passengers wait seemingly forever to make theirs. Helplessness engulfs us, then determination takes hold.
During these breathless moments, Greengrass cuts away to the desperation and confusion in airport control towers, the FAA's overwhelmed operations command center in Herndon, Va., and the military's unprepared operations center at the Northeast Air Defense Sector in upstate New York. For all their monitors and electronic equipment, there is a horrific, low-tech moment when controllers at Newark Airport get a perfect view across the Hudson of the second plane hitting a World Trade Center tower. No one can even speak.
In years to come, United 93 may enter our mythology in ways unimaginable. But for now, we have a starting point. "United 93" is a sincere attempt to pull together the known facts and guesses at the emotional truths as best anyone can. Then, in the movie's final moments, the impact of the heroism aboard United 93 becomes startlingly clear.
Universal Pictures and StudioCannal present in association with Sidney Kimmel Entertainment a Working Title production
Screenwriter-director: Paul Greengrass
Executive producers: Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin
Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd
Production designer: Dominic Watkins
Composer: John Powell
Costume designer: Dinah Collin
Donald Freeman Greene: David Rasche
Himself: Ben Sliney
Capt. Jason M. Dahl: JJ Johnson
Todd Beamer: David Alan Basche
Sandra Bradshaw: Trish Gates
Wanda Anita Green: Starla Benford
Maj. Kevin Nasypany: Patrick St. Esprit
Jeremy Glick: Peter Hermann
MPAA rating R
Running time -- 111 minutes
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