It kept sliding down my queue. I kept inventing reasons why I should put it off and finding other movies that needed more immediate attention. It wasn’t that I was concerned that United 93 would be a bad movie. Given Paul Greengrass’s pedigree and how affecting his historical reconstruction of Bloody Sunday was, I took for granted that this new project would be worth seeing. No, what I was worried about was that United 93 would be too good, too real, too raw. Finally though, I gave up the excuses and ordered the DVD with a hopeful dread. Whatever my experience was going to be, I braced myself for it.
The film begins with the would-be hijackers praying in Arabic. It’s a scene that instantly ratchets up the discomfort level, with their sense of peace and holiness juxtaposing with our knowledge of what it’ll lead to. From there, United 93 continues as uneventfully as the day it depicts, with average people doing expected things. Air traffic controllers supervise blips on a radar screen, passengers hustle through the usual airport rigmarole, flight attendants prep for another cross-country trip. And yet once again, even the most innocuous of actions carry a deep foreboding, the queasiness of prophecy.
Greengrass’s direction here recalls a lot from Bloody Sunday, which also saw a lot of innocent people unknowingly marching to their doom. It’s harder here, because the events are still so fresh and so local. And because the people who board the planes are actors we don’t know, they can easily stand in as our neighbors and friends. In their unrecognized faces, we can project our own fears and ultimately, ourselves. While we’re doing this work though, the passengers are still just obliviously stuffing their bags into overhead bins or checking in with the office before takeoff.
Along with casting unknown actors, Greengrass also incorporates real people who were intimately involved in the events of September 11th. They fit in undetectably, but underscore the level of participation he was able to secure and the authenticity it lends his project. The most notable “as himself” appearance is FAA Director of Operations Ben Sliney, who happened to be marking his first day in the position. We watch as Sliney again makes the unprecedented decision, after the two World Trade Center crashes, to ground every plane that was currently in the air (about 4,200). Learning later that it was the man himself only compounded the gravity of the scene.
Ben Sliney as himself
Supplementing scenes inside the airplane, Greengrass intercuts between the National Air Traffic Control Center, airport towers and a military headquarters. He seems as interested in depicting the mechanics of response as the emotions behind it. Rather than speculating about the origins of terrorism (a la Syriana) or sketching in the larger picture, he focuses on chains of command and tactical maneuvers. His air traffic controllers and pilots also speak in very specific and realistic vernacular, filled with bits of transponder code. In a larger sense, his choice to dwell on technical aspects like these confirms United 93 is about restaging, not reassessing. This is a movie that attempts to stay respectful by adding as little interpretation as possible.
Throughout the first two acts of the film, United 93 is working to gather the credibility to deliver the horrific finale. That it ably does achieve this goal only promises that the inevitable crash will be devastating to watch. It is beyond devastating. The soul-rending center of the movie, it zeroes in on the chaos with an unflinching lens. Ordinary people are summoned to be reluctant heroes; ordinary people are stabbed, killed and turned into unwilling martyrs. Taking in the brunt force of the re-creation, I marveled that anyone could’ve watched this in a theater. I imagined rows of sobbing, shaking strangers looking up at the screen of rows of sobbing, shaking strangers. Near the end, at its tensest, most emotionally draining climax, I even had to pause the movie, leave my apartment and be around someone, anyone else.
United 93 is a still-healing wound torn open and doused in rubbing alcohol. It’s easily the most painful viewing experience since at least The Pianist and far riskier an endeavor. It’s near-impossible to come away from it unscathed or unchanged. Indeed, I’m not sure if I could stand to watch it again. But no other film this year dared to plunge so heartfeltly, so bravely into the darkness. No other film felt nearly as relevant; no other film was better this year.
The trailer on YouTube here.
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