Ill-Fated 9-11 Flight Revisited as Hyper-Realistic Profile in Courage
Rated R for profanity, and for intense sequences of terror and violence.
Running time: 111 minutes
Studio: Universal Pictures
Film Review by Kam Williams
Excellent (4 stars)
Curiously, all the pre-release buzz about this flick revolved around the question of whether or not 9-11 was still too sensitive a subject to make a movie about five years after the fact. The cynic in me suspects that this brouhaha might have been baked-up by a cagey publicist in search of a little headline-grabbing controversy. Afterall, a trio of TV docudramas specifically about United Flight 93 have already been very well received.
First came, Let’s Roll: The Story of Flight 93 (2002), followed by The Flight That Fought Back (2005), and then by Flight 93 (2006). So, rather than wondering if this picture might be arriving too soon, any speculation probably should have centered on whether the public would even want to endure yet another chronicling of the same tragic series of events aboard this ill-fated airliner.
Fortunately, United 93 does depart significantly from those earlier offerings in a couple of critical respects, namely, it avoids the tempting trap of trading in sentimentality or in symbols of patriotism. Ironically, by not wrapping itself up in the American flag, demonizing the evildoers, canonizing the heroes, or focusing on their tearful telephone farewells to family and friends, this relatively-sophisticated film actually ends up being a far more effective enterprise, emotionally. For it telescopes tightly on the tragedy, not as a rallying cry for the war on terror, but from the plausible perspective of 40, otherwise ordinary people simply reacting and responding to the shocking realization that their jet has just been hijacked.
This hyper-realistic approach was the brainchild of Paul Greengrass, the acclaimed British writer/director who adopted the same verisimilitude in making Bloody Sunday (2002) a documentary-style drama recounting the massacre of 13 peaceful, Irish protesters by British troops. Greengrass is credited with imbuing each of his socially-relevant recreations with that trademark dynamic intensity, so United 93 should come as no surprise to those familiar with his earlier work.
As everyone knows, four aircraft were seized by Muslim extremists on 9-11, but only Flight 93 failed to hit its target. It departed from Newark Airport at 8:42 with 44 aboard: 33 passengers, 7 crew members, and 4 hijackers. From the transcript of the plane’s black box voice recorder, as well as from phone calls placed by a dozen victims, we know that the conspirators stormed the cockpit at 9:26 A.M., just two minutes after the captain had been warned of a possible intrusion.
And the nation is also well aware of the valiant attempt of the passengers to retake the plane a half-hour later, once they had learned from operators and loved ones of their captors’ intention to turn the aircraft into a weapon of mass destruction. Armed with cutlery, boiling water and a food cart, they charged up the aisle, inspired by Todd Beamer’s rallying cry of ’Let’s roll!’ But the Arabs at the controls decided to crash the plane before the passengers could wrest control back.
In crafting United 93, director Greengrass remained painstakingly faithful to these known facts, though he does take considerable liberties in filling in the cracks with likely scenarios. The film unfolds in real-time on that fateful September morning, initially inter-cutting staged shots of terrorists, travelers and air traffic controllers with now familiar TV-footage of the Trade Center and the Pentagon in flames. We also see the rank ineptitude of the FAA, and the utter unpreparedness of NORAD to defend the country from the air.
But once the terrorists take charge of Flight 93, the movie turns terribly claustrophobic, concerning itself solely with the point-of-view of those inside the plane. So, for instance, we only hear the passengers’ half of their phone conversations, and how they came to decide to hatch a plan after cobbling together the somewhat unreliable information they were receiving from the outside world.
It is noteworthy that the cast is comprised of a capable ensemble of accomplished actors augmented by actual airline personnel, including some of the air traffic controllers on duty during 9-11. A gut-wrenching, chillingly profound profile in courage of forty strangers who bonded under incomprehensible circumstances to face an unspeakable evil.
Cinema verite at its very best.