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United 93   A+

Universal Pictures / Working Title Films

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Paul Greengrass
Cast: David Alan Basche, Lewis Alsamari, Christian Clemenson, Denny Dillon, Khalid Abdalla, JJ Johnson, Trish Gates, Polly Adams.

Review by Rob Vaux

I sit here in the aftermath of my United 93 viewing, wondering if our country has truly learned anything from the events it depicts. The initial debate around the movie focused on understandable topics of timing and taste. Is it too soon? Will this exploit the events of 9/11? Are we ready for (to paraphrase The Onion) the Jerry Bruckheimer version of such a painful wound? But as word filtered through -- in glowingly positive terms -- that director Paul Greengrass had presented this story with the extraordinary grace, restraint, and unvarnished truth it deserves, the arguments shifted. The word now is not "United 93 can't do right by its subject," but rather "it's so good and so moving that no one will pay to relive the trauma."

The observation is both true and deeply troubling. In all likelihood, exponentially more people will line up for Tom Cruise's make-believe explosions next week than confront and grapple with a few real ones here. Wasn't 9/11 supposed to teach us better? Aren't we supposed to face the world with clear, unblinking eyes -- to put aside our petty diversions and answer the challenge that that day set forth? If we can't face this now -- when our place in the world has become so fractured, and the legacy of those who died feels so distant -- then when can we?

The film itself gives us nowhere to hide. It doesn't fob things off on faceless enemies or play to the naked jingoism that some would insist that day required. It simply presents what likely happened as truthfully as it can: using all its power to accentuate (but never trivialize) the inherent drama of the circumstances. There are no name actors, nor do we see things from any single point of view. Many figures are played by the actual men and women who were there, portraying themselves in an unparalleled act of vérité. Even the terrorists take on believable dimensions -- scared, deluded men whose blind fanaticism openly wars with their very human need to survive. The resulting portrait achingly reminds us of who we were before that Tuesday morn, what these events cost us, and how we've changed both for better and for worse.

The details are small and unobtrusive, presented by Greengrass with deceptively casual simplicity. The film begins with just another weekday in New York: nice day, clear skies. Passengers waiting for Flight 93 talk on cell phones with their families and co-workers. A gaggle of stewardesses arrives to start their prep work. Workmen slowly fill the plane's engines -- a lotta fuel in there, it's a long way to San Francisco -- while various flight control centers settle into a typical morning workload. And then, almost as an afterthought, a single air trafficker asks an innocuous question over the radio. "American 11, Boston Center, what's your status...? American 11...? American 11, are you there...?"

Greengrass never lets us see things all at once, nor are the characters permitted the wisdom that hindsight has given us. As the day unfolds, the early abnormalities turn into confusion and concern, seen initially through people who only gradually grasp the enormity of the attacks. Things start out normally, then get bad, then worse, then incomprehensible. The formula makes for exquisitely Hitchcockian suspense, bound up in a tone of underlying sadness. There's a hijacking and wow we haven't had one of those in 20 years, and the terrorists might be making demands soon, and we don't know if it's just a hoax, and the military isn't getting back to us, and the plane's going back to Logan, and now it's turning south, and hey, is that smoke coming from the Trade Center?!

While the ground crews struggle to process these events, the passengers of Flight 93 chat away in blissful ignorance. We're an hour in before the terrorists onboard make their move, and by then the sheer relentless certainty of it has stretched our nerves to the breaking point. The men strike suddenly and without warning, relying on surprise and the assumptions of previous hijackings to hold the passengers at bay. Everyone in the cabin is quickly subdued and ushered to the back. They stay complacent because they think they're going to go through the "usual" routine: landing on a tarmac somewhere as their captors issue fiats and negotiate with the authorities. Then, like the people on the ground, it slowly dawns on them that this time is different -- that the terrorists have no intention of landing, and if they're going to be prevented from reaching their target, someone on the plane is going to have to stop them. Greengrass exquisitely blends the passengers' fear and disorientation with the courage they find to stand up and act, delivered without heroics or maudlin sentiment, but with quiet, dignified authority.

The mixture pervades every frame of United 93, and the bravery shown throughout the film is validated by the confusion and pettiness that accompany it. We see America at its best and worst: challenging us to do right by the people who died, while silently condemning the squabbling and infighting that has since engulfed us. Mistakes are made that play right into the terrorists' hands -- the Air Force can't get any planes into the air, while key figures get the facts only by staring gape-jawed at CNN -- even as people at every level of the crisis find a way to rise to the occasion. The camera captures it all with silent dispassion, neither judging nor exploiting, but simply revealing as only this medium can.

The results transform United 93 into a testament as inescapable as the memorial now going up at Ground Zero. This happened, it tells us. This is us. This is who we could be. This is what we fear we've become. Those are hard things to face, the sort of heavy-duty subjects that keep one away from the theaters and waiting for the DVD... or the cable broadcast... or the network premiere, someday, maybe, when we find the time. Tom Cruise offers much more comforting solutions with his movie, as does The Da Vinci Code, and those swell X-Men arriving at the end of the month. I'm not condemning these films or trying to suggest any irresponsibility on the part of their creators (indeed, I get paid to talk about them, linking this pot inextricably to the kettle's black). But the issues of United 93 are in the midst of transforming our world right here, right now, as we speak. Greengrass' extraordinary accomplishment draws attention to the path we have chosen and asks us to consider -- with all deliberation -- where it leads. It is filmmaking at its most noble, demanding to be seen, absorbed, debated, and discussed by everyone who remembers what happened that morning. Hopefully, it will make us better. At the very least, it will make us wiser... provided anyone watches it, of course. If you can find the time to go see any of those other movies in the next month -- the light ones, the fun ones, the ones that make it all OK by the time the credits roll -- then you can find the time to see this one. Please do. It's really important.

Review published 04.27.2006.

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