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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "United 93" (2006)

I’m not sure how I’m supposed to review this movie. I’m not even sure it’s a review I want to write. I have nagging questions regarding my reaction to the movie that will probably never be answered. Did it move me to tears because it’s a powerful piece of filmmaking? Or are my emotions from 9/11 still too raw for me to disassociate them from my role as a film critic? Would I have the same reaction if 9/11 never happened and this had been a work of fiction? Certainly not, though I would certainly praise it for its tight, skillful storytelling and execution, but under the circumstances there is so much more to say.

Of course, it’s no surprise that a movie about the events of 9/11—particularly those of Flight 93—would make for a powerful, emotionally devastating experience. What is most surprising, really, is the timing of its release. The question or comment people immediately have regarding this film: Isn’t it a little too soon for something like this? My gut reaction prior to walking into the theater was a resounding ‘yes.’ I didn’t feel ready for a straightforward dramatization of what happened on September 11th. I tried watching the trailer for this film, but shut it off half-way through.

Nevertheless, I had to see the film and braced myself for, well, anything. Paul Greengrass—whose similarly structured Bloody Sunday depicted what is regarded as Ireland’s 9/11—tells the story of United Flight 93 from multiple viewpoints. We see the story from the point of view of the hijackers, three men who will take over the plane and use it to crash into the White House. We see the story from the control towers, the Generals who have to try and figure out the best way to maneuver through this unprecedented situation. We watch them watch the events of 9/11 unfold on CNN. We see the air traffic controllers try and prevent a mid-air collision while trying to figure out why three planes have lost transmission.

But of course, the most compelling part of the narrative is Flight 93 itself. We know what will happen, but the suspense remains painful. The cast is made up of unknowns, which gives the film its true authenticity. We don’t know these people. There is no sense of safety or calm by having any established actors inhabiting these roles. Once that airplane door seals shut, it’s decision time for the viewer: Are you sure you want to sit through what’s about to happen?

I, for one, was not sure, but knew I had to regardless. Greengrass has made an uncompromising film, one without obvious, aggressively heroic pursuits and without a need to hammer in any kind of “message.” He depicts the events in real time and as they unfold, we are reminded exactly of what it felt like on that beautiful, sunny morning to watch the world change before our disbelieving eyes. We remember how absurd and unthinkable it felt at the time to hear the words “a plane has been hijacked and has crashed into the World Trade Center.” We remember that overwhelming feeling, just as the Generals do in this film, that “we’re at war with someone,” but we didn’t know who or why. It didn’t feel like real life. It felt like a movie.

Of course, one could always put themselves at ease when watching “United 93” that it is, in fact, just a movie, but I couldn’t. I applaud Greengrass for his vision and skills as a storyteller and craftsman, but my mind couldn’t separate the critic from my own personal feelings regarding 9/11. Given what Greengrass accomplished with “Bloody Sunday,” he remains the perfect choice to make a movie on this subject. He has the uncanny ability to depict our greatest tragedies by not only giving us all sides of the story, but also by giving each side clarity and depth. None of these qualities should go unnoticed, but the one overriding feeling I had during “United 93” was being in tears during much of the second half.

Will you feel this way because it’s a great movie or because it comes to us so soon after the fact? Should this film have been made now or should they have waited another 10-20 years? Here’s how I look at it. If filmmakers waited a decade or two to make this movie, long after the tears have shed and the relatives of the victims have passed on, the movie could likely miss a few of its intended marks. Can you imagine if, decades from now, some Michael Bay-esque music video director came along and made a star-studded, soundtrack-pushing piece of crass commercial filmmaking about 9/11? Does 9/11 need to be relegated to summer popcorn fare along the lines of the despicable “Pearl Harbor” movie?

No. By making this movie now, Greengrass has accomplished the thankless task of making what will likely be the definitive filmed version of these unthinkable events. He does it artfully, gracefully and without regard for commercial appeal. The film gains impact and will sustain it thanks to the timing of its production and release. With the blessing of the victims’ families behind it, “United 93” pays tribute to those passengers who overtook the hijackers, but it does so without any grandiosity. It doesn’t beg for a salute from the audience. It simply reminds you of what you may have stored in the back of your mind. If you forgot what that day felt like, this movie will surely remind you.

But is that the point? Is there a need for us to relive this day right now? Statements from the victims’ families have said that they feel people have forgotten, that now is the time for a movie like this. Yet, almost everyone I’ve talked to has expressed complete disinterest in paying money to relive 9/11. I can’t say I blame them. “United 93” pays tribute to the courage of these passengers, and while it is certainly respectful, I’m not sure it has the desired effect. I didn’t feel as though I really knew these people. By choosing to examine the events from multiple viewpoints instead of just staying on the plane with the passengers, the movie paints a portrait of their collective courage, which the movie wants to honor. That, I believe, is the point of its existence. This is not a movie about these people, but about their actions. Some might see that as an unfortunate compromise.

These issues occurred to me days later, once I got some distance from the film. A second viewing might get me off the fence about them. I cannot honestly say whether or not you should see “United 93,” but I’m glad I did and I’m thankful it got made. Like “The Passion of the Christ,” it really depends on whether or not you feel you need the experience. It’s your own personal call. The movie will stay with you in a way few movies do and it could last more than a day or so. It could leave you speechless, devastated, saddened and somewhat paralyzed. This is a great movie for many reasons, but its greatness is beside the point.

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