Can a movie be suspenseful when everyone knows what happened? United 93 is one positive answer to that question. Even though we knew far too much about the mechanics of the 9/11 attacks and had no doubt as to what was going to happen on screen, it kept us on the proverbial seats’ edge. Rewatching it for this review, some years later, we were right back on edge — and our own 9/11 memories were never far from the surface.
This is not an escapist film.
Paul Greengrass here has done something very difficult, because he had to tread the fine line between “going Hollywood” and making a depressing downer of a film, too grim to entertain viewers.
Greengrass’s film is shot in intense but sparse documentary style. Cuts are rapid, close-ups are tight, lines and performances are understated — no one here will be admitted to the Royal Hospital for Overacting. The documentary style is enhanced by using actual locations, and actual participants in the response, where possible, as extras and even speaking actors, playing themselves. The airline crew were played by other United Airlines employees.
Here is Wikipedia on how Greengrass, who wrote, directed and produced the movie, made the film:
Passengers were portrayed in the film mostly by professional, but relatively unknown, actors (Tom Burnett, for instance, is played by Christian Clemenson, who has since appeared on Boston Legal and CSI: Miami). The roles of one of the flight attendants, the two pilots, and many other airline personnel were filled by actual airline employees. Some participants in the real-life events play themselves, notably FAAoperations manager Ben Sliney.
The dialogue, which was mostly improvised during rehearsals Greengrass held with the cast, was based on face-to-face interviews between actors and families of those they portray. Almost none of the passengers in the film are referred to by their names. Their identities remain anonymous, emphasizing the group effort over any individual heroics (and also portraying the fact that strangers on an airplane would not know one another’s names). Much of the dialogue uses technical authenticity rather than theatrical embellishments, such as talk about if a plane has “Squawked 7500.” During production, the actors playing the crew and the passengers of the flight were put in separate hotels from the actors portraying the hijackers, even eating their meals separately, ostensibly to create an air of antagonism in the film between the two groups.
Air Force Officer Maj. James Fox (played by himself) leads the air defense response in United 93.
You can see how some of those unconventional approaches added to the film both in terms of verisimilitude and drama.
There are some departures from facts that are known today, but the movie is remarkably close to the facts as they were known then, according to Chasing the Frog, a website that seeks to evaluate the accuracy of fact-based entertainment.
The movie had overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, but its box-office was relatively weak when it was released, perhaps because it treats an awfully intense and tragic event. Since we beat up Roger Ebert last week, we’ll link to his positive review this week out of fairness.
Here’s a snippet from his take:
But the film doesn’t depict the terrorists as villains. It has no need to. Like everyone else in the movie they are people of ordinary appearance, going about their business. “United 93” is incomparably more powerful because it depicts all of its characters as people trapped in an inexorable progress toward tragedy. The movie contains no politics. No theory. No personal chit-chat. No patriotic speeches. We never see the big picture.
One has to concur with Ebert there. The movie is gripping precisely because it is in the moment and in the place. No one in the film has a past, and the film doesn’t address the future — for those who have one. Of course, Ebert goes on to bash George W. Bush for how he comes off in the film, which doesn’t have George Bush in it at all. If one is obsessed with Moby Dick, he may see more white whales than others do.
You can’t watch this movie without thinking about the actual attack, and if you’re a retired special operations guy, while you don’t lose sight of the horror and barbarism of it, you also look at the attack and response in operational terms.While the actions of the terrorists were repellent and incomprehensible to Westerners, in their own culture, and particularly in the lights of the Salafist/Wahhabi branch of orthodox Islam to which they subscribe, non-muslims are seen as less than human and expendable, and suicide attacks are seen as noble sacrifices.
Viewed in a detached manner, strictly in terms of operational effect, then, the attacks of 9/11 were effective special operations. However, to date the effects have seemed to rebound to the negative on Al-Qaeda and its sponsors. Of course, they take a longer view than we do (they’re looking to restore the lost Caliphate, and recapture lost Mohammedan lands and tributary states, including al-Andalus — Spain. They could have just waited and bought it in bankruptcy, but we digress). But the 9/11 attacks can reasonably be seen as a war-making operation, if by unlawful, transnational combatants.
That makes the response of the passengers of Flight 93 the first, and we would argue the best, counterattack in the grossly mislabeled Global War on Terrorism (or Global War on Tourism, as implemented by the TSA). The rapid self-organization and counterattack of the Army of Davids in that hijacked airplane did not succeed, if you define that as regaining control of the airplane and saving their lives. But if you define success as thwarting the objective of the enemy — here, it was to crash into a Washington landmark, probably the Capitol or the White House — then they did succeed.
It was a bit like the attack of VT-8 at Midway — the obsolete torpedo bombers who went to their doom against the fighters and guns of the Japanese fleet, but whose sacrifice, by distracting the defenders, led in part to the battle being a strategic defeat for Japan (they had to abandon their plans to seize the island).
The movie United 93 makes it clear that the victories we had that day, such as they were, were products of a theme we often address in this blog: the American capacity for improvisation and leaderless self-organization. The responses of the FAA managers and NORAD/Air Force air defense leaders display the exact kind of high-stakes improv at which Americans are so gifted, and are often overlooked in the celebration — the deserved celebration — of the passenger counterattack.
Finally, a consumer warning: the excellent Paul Greengrass film is United 93. There is also, in DVD, a made-for-TV movie called Flight 93. While Flight 93 has some good performances, and treats the same facts (and fills in the unknowns with similar suppositions), if you’re only going to watch one, you want United 93. It’s a rollicking, and very intense, window into the events of that terrible day over a decade ago now. The TV film dwells on the phone calls from the passengers to their loved ones… it plays up the bathos to the point where we checked to see if it was on the Lifetime Channel, but no, it was on A&E. As a TV (even cable) production, it’s a better choice if salty language offends you, though. United 93 went to theaters with an R rating, which was either because the language or the violent events of the day had somebody’s knickers in a knot.
The low budget of the TV film shows: they used a generic Hollywood airplane mockup (Greengrass used a retired 757, and dressed it in the proper United trim), and they used a Hollywood set designer’s idea of what an air traffic control center and military command center are. Greengrass not only used the real centers, but many of their real staff. The one you want is United 93.