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A Film ‘United’

Brian Doxtader and Erin McGinn | Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” is not a lot of things. It is not a film that tries to answer tough, ever-lingering questions. It is not a film that tries to explain the scope of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. It is not a film that tries to examine the bigger picture.

Yet these traits (or lack thereof) make it a stronger and better picture, and make its impact and conviction resonate that much more.

What “United 93” does accomplish is putting the audience in a front-row seat to watch the events unfold. Critics and detractors have asked why this is being done now – everyone saw the events unfold in great detail on every television across the country (if not immediately, then soon after).

However, one of the movie’s great strengths is that it removes (rather than adds to) the gloss of reporting that networks like CNN and FOX news create. The audience is there – on the plane, in the aircraft control rooms, in the military centers – seeing the confusion, frustration and emotion of everyone involved.

The plot follows the real people involved in these events, both on the ground and in the air. In fact, many of the air control personnel, such as Ben Sliney, and military officers, such as Major James Fox, actually portray themselves in the film.

Greengrass also received permission from the family members of the United 93 victims and thoroughly researched each person on the flight. Greengrass’ typical use of a stripped-down, faux-documentary cinematics assuage the usual Hollywood gloss and allows the audience to connect more easily with the on-screen action.

“United 93” is basically a minute-by-minute account of everything that happened on the ground as well as what happened on the flight itself. One of the hardest things about this movie is remembering what it was like before that day. There are scenes of questionable airport security and general relaxation, which shock the post-9/11 viewers. When Ben Sliney, head of air traffic control (9/11 was his first day on the job) first gets word that a plane might have been hijacked, the other officials at the meeting make light of the situation (“Wow, a hijacking, we haven’t had one of those in what? 20 years?”) – another element which is shocking to viewers today.

The overall confusion is also highlighted in stark detail. No one is able to efficiently communicate with anyone else, which makes the tragedy resonate powerfully since the audience knows how it all ultimately ends. The air traffic controllers have trouble convincing the military about the situation, the military in turn cannot communicate with the FAA or with a member of the executive branch. The military, in fact, was not even aware of the whole situation until they watched the first plane on CNN.

There are several moments in which both the air traffic control and military personnel were completely clueless – when the World Trade Center went up in flames, it did not dawn on them that it was one of the commercial flights that were suspected hijackings. The film emphasizes the system-wide failure, leaving the audience to wonder if tragedy could have been averted had just one piece of the chain worked properly.

While all of this ground activity is going on, the passengers on United 93 remain unaware, until one of the terrorists gets anxious and jumps the gun. Instead of waiting until they were closer to DC, the terrorists took over the plane too early – they then quickly realized they had to be able to hold everyone in control for two hours instead of 30 minutes.

Eventually some of the passengers take the risk to call their families – upon learning about the towers, they realize that they are part of the terrorist plot and decide that to take action against the hijackers who hav taken control of their plane.

While it is hard not to sympathize with the members of the plane, Greengrass does not really give a portrait of who these people are/were. Instead, the passengers on the plane are mostly nameless – the audience feels their emotions as they go through this traumatic experience, but do not get to know any of them as individuals. This anonymity is a little troubling, since the film is ostensibly about people – without the connection to the characters, the emotional power of the denouement is diminished, albeit only slightly.

The “cinema veritae” editing and cinematography (a particularly modern and stylish approach) certainly evokes the “you-are-there” feeling that the filmmakers obviously wanted, but it also makes some of the events confusing and sometimes difficult to follow.

Greengrass’ methodology and obvious respect for the material is a good fit – his reverent, powerful “Bloody Sunday” was sharp and insightful, and “The Bourne Supremacy” was a slick, well made Hollywood blockbuster. “United 93” falls somewhere in between, casting a professional Hollywood sheen over the serious and socially aware subject matter.

An accomplished director, Greengrass’ ability to veer from politically charged drama to spy thrillers meshes well with the inevitable emotional undercurrent that surrounds “United 93.” At once sympathetically passionate and coolly and objectively professional, the film walks a tightrope of balancing truth, entertainment, respect and understanding. “United 93” does it all, if not perfectly, then very well.

Ultimately, “United 93” is a straightforward, stripped down retelling of the momentous events which occurred on Sept. 11. The love and care that went into making the picture is obvious through the striking amount of detail and research – though there is obviously some artistic license, Greengrass understands that the event itself was riveting enough without bogging the film down with melodrama.

One of the big questions surrounding the film is its timeliness – is it too soon? Is five years enough time? Arguments have been made that a half-decade simply isn’t enough time because we still remember.

But such an argument is missing the point. Greengrass knows we remember. Greengrass knows we’ll always remember. But what he really wants to do, and what the detractors of “United 93” fail to see, is that he doesn’t want us to remember.

He wants us to never forget.