Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language, and some Intense Sequences of Terror and Violence
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Written by: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Christian Clemenson, Cheyenne Jackson, David Alan Basche, Peter Hermann, Daniel Sauli, Khalid Abdalla, Sarmed al-Samarrai, Jamie Harding, Omar Berdouni, J.J. Johnson, Gary Commock, Nancy McDoniel & Erich Redman
September 11, 2001 shook America forever. Everyone U.S. citizen likely remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard news of terrorist attacks. That day shaped this country’s future, started a controversial war, and left millions weeping and feeling totally hopeless. However, the aftermath of 9/11 also showed the best of America by having people of all race, class, religion and social standing band together as one. Though it remains the darkest day in this country’s history, September 11th also carried a story of unwavering bravery in the face of certain death in the fourth hijacked flight that never reached its target. Paul Greengrass masterfully tells the story of what (might have) occurred on United Airlines Flight 93 and does so with complete, utter respect for the heavy material.
UNITED 93 begins with no backstory. We open on the morning of September 11th, 2001. We see passengers boarding Flight 93 and panic slowly ensuing in the Federal Aviation Administration as hijackings are reported. The film plays out in real time and most of the passengers are not referred to by name. However, each performer playing a passenger actually met with the victim’s relatives beforehand to get a sense of who that person was. As a result, the plot plays on a sense of comradery among the passengers on the plane who show unbelievable courage in a horrifying situation. It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of the dialogue was improvised in sessions between the cast members and Greengrass, adding a more natural feeling to the film.
Paul Greengrass realized that having recognizable A-listers attached to the sensitive material could potentially detract from the film’s atmosphere and the story’s power. As a result, Greengrass cast a bunch of unknowns as passengers and they come off as entirely believable. Adding to the unrecognizable faces are actual airline employees in the role of airline employees (flight attendants and pilots) and a FAA operations manager playing himself. Unfamiliar faces, characters that don’t seem like movie characters, natural dialogue, and a believable running time construct a convincing window back to that fateful day.
The film’s plot, playing out in real time, has two distinct halves. The first half is build-up and initial attacks. We see the terrorists sitting among the other passengers and nervously wait for what’s eventually coming. There’s also a lot of time spent in the FAA offices during the first hour, whilst the World Trade Center is hit. The second half is more claustrophobic and centered on the titular flight passengers and crew members. We see the hijacking go down and one of the possible scenarios of how the failed terrorist attack played out. The filmmaking techniques masterfully keep the story gripping and powerful the whole way through, even if shaky camera work and out-of-focus bits slightly distract in certain scenes.
Nobody knows exactly what took place on Flight 93, because the only surviving evidence exists in audio recordings and phone calls. Maybe the passengers broke into the cockpit or maybe they were mere seconds away from breaching it before the plane crashed. Maybe the pilots were killed immediately by the terrorists or maybe they were herded to the back of the plane with the other passengers. This was the first major Hollywood movie to address the September 11th attacks and it did so in a respectful, solemn manner. While some people will never watch this film out of understandable overwhelming heartbreak, movies can be cathartic in coming to terms with real-life events. September 11th was a day that shook America forever and will go down in infamy (along with Pearl Harbor), but something about seeing a respectful cinematic tribute to that dark day is therapeutic. UNITED 93 is a tough watch and an immensely rewarding experience.