Director: Paul Greengrass
Runtime: 111 minutes
United 93 is a film that, in great detail and with remarkable pace, tells the story of September 11, 2001. There are no well-known actors, in fact many of the air-traffic controllers and military people play themselves. The first part of the film focuses on Ben Sliney (playing himself), the man in command of the FAA air-traffic control, responsible for all of the aircraft taking off, in the air and landing throughout the entire country. This is Sliney’s last day on the job, as he has just been promoted and he is about to move into a different role (this is not explained, only mentioned in passing). Sliney begins getting reports of hijackings, something that really hasn’t happened for many years, and he starts tracking the planes, speaking with local air-traffic controls and with the military. The film eventually shifts to only being on United 93, the only plane that did not reach its destination because the passengers rallied and overtook the hijackers and crashed the plane near Shanksville, PA.
The construction of the film is what makes this less of a drama or a re-enacted documentary. None of the lines sound like memorized, written lines. Everything sounds real and conversational and natural. Casting the real people who were dealing with the situation was a stroke of inspiration for director Greengrass. It makes everything feel more real which helps to bring up the level of tension. I submit that there has not been better non-professional acting since the Neo-Realism movement in post-WWII Italy. It also takes a great measure of courage to relive one of the worst events to befall this country and replay the same role you were in that very day, forced to make the same calls (right or wrong) and not be able to change anything.
The camera work in this film also lends to its reality. The cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, worked with Greengrass to make the ‘queasy-cam’ more of a fly-on-the-wall cinema-verite style. Using this model, Greengrass is able to make us feel like we are watching the events unfold. He also wisely avoids using timestamps so we are not distracted from the action and do not become concerned with the tick-tock of the day.
When the film cuts away from the control rooms and stays within the plane (approximately the last 45 minutes of the film), the tension is ratcheted up to levels Hitchcock could only have dreamed of. The fear and action is so stirring, I find myself wondering if they’re going to win this time, pull the plane out of the fall and land safely. The atmosphere becomes so claustrophobic that the air around you seems to get stuffy, no matter where you are. When the plane ultimately crashes, the release is so great my only reaction, every time I’ve seen it, is to tear up and cry a little.
I first saw this film in the theaters six years ago. At that point, the real events had only happened five years before and many thought the film was put out too close to the tragedy. I didn’t think so then, and I don’t think so now. The film is a tribute to the spirit and sacrifice of the passengers to save others. They knew they were going to die, although they hoped they didn’t have to.
The greatness of this film is its construction, sure, but also the way it uses our emotions to bring us into the situation. It plays to the audience’s emotions without cloying at them. When there is an emotional response, it is earned by the film, not set up just so the audience will cry or gasp, or fear. The audience becomes one of the characters in the film. You feel like you’re in the control room, waiting for Sliney to ask you a question. You feel like you’re on the plane, ready to rush up with the others to take down the hijackers and try and save your fellow passengers who until just a couple hours ago were total strangers.
That is the ultimate power of this film. It makes you forget that it is a film; it turns itself into a living moment in time, one that can be revisited if you have the fortitude to do so. It brings out all of the bad and good of that infamous day and provides somewhat of a catharsis for those unresolved feelings that we as a nation still hold on to these eleven years after the event. Yes, Osama bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda is mostly demolished (or at least severely weakened), but those facts cannot undo what was done. September 11, 2001 hurt this country greatly and its effects are still being felt as I suspect they always will be to some degree or another. This film gives us a glimpse of what happened on the ground and a good supposition of what happened in the air.