On the 11th September 2001, four commercial airliners were hijacked on America's east coast and used in one of the most spectacular terrorist attacks in history. But only three of them made it to their intended targets: the twin towers and the Pentagon. The fourth - United Airlines flight 93 - crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania on its way to Washington DC and the White House. Evidence from phone records shows that the 40 passengers realised they were part of a suicide mission, and that they chose to attempt to retake the plane rather than be part of the attack. This film recreates the events onboard United 93 and on the ground in real time.
United 93 is an extraordinary film, easily one of the best of the year. A large part of what makes it extraordinary is what it is not. It is not melodramatic, not patriotic, not political, not even morally judgmental. Instead of an overwrought exercise in flag waving and anti-Muslim hysteria, director Paul Greengrass has crafted a cinematic memorial to the heroism of ordinary people.
Greengrass is no stranger to recreating politically sensitive historical tragedies. His film, Bloody Sunday, won several awards, as well as praise from both sides of the Irish conflict. Like Bloody Sunday, United 93 is an exercise in meticulous realism. Everything from the documentary style visuals and sound, to the largely unscripted dialogue, to the "real-time" staging of the events combines to give the film a disturbing authenticity.
This apparently effortless naturalism stems from Greengrass's rigorous and painstaking methods. Thousands of hours of research and planning went into the film, including in-depth interviews with everyone from air traffic controllers to the passengers' families. Before shooting began, his largely unknown cast knew intimate details about the people they were portraying, including where they were going, what they were wearing and even what they said on their last phone calls from the doomed plane.
Once all this knowledge - both practical and emotional - had been gathered and processed, Greengrass set out to recreate the situation. Instead of scripting the events on board, Greengrass forced his cast to literally make it up as they went along with only a few time markers as a guide. Filming inside an actual Boeing 757, the filmmakers went through the hijacking more than a dozen times. In order to let events develop they used extremely long takes, some of them over an hour long. While the events on the ground were somewhat more structured, Greengrass also encouraged the cast to react rather than act.
While these methods may seem extravagant or pretentious, the results are indisputable. Watching United 93 you feel as though you are right there, watching those awful events unfold again. Though we all know from the start what the outcome will be, it's impossible not to be caught up in the awful tension. Like Gus Van Sant's Elephant, United 93 takes a highly charged event and breaks it down to human scale, where the politics and morality cease to matter and ordinary people are everything.
And it's this that makes Greengrass's film truly exceptional. While the film's realism is impressive, and the factual insights it offers are fascinating, it's really the emotional journey that makes it worth watching. Watching the leader of the hijackers struggle with his conscience, or the air traffic controllers yelling frantically into their mics, or the passengers making their last phonecalls before they retook the plane, you feel like you are tapping into our shared humanity. In that light the heroism of the passengers becomes far more poignant than anything Hollywood has been able to dream up.
Should you watch United 93? The experience is far from pleasant or entertaining, but it has extraordinary power. Many people will question the point of a film that makes no political or moral judgements about 9/11. For many of us that day is too inexorably tangled up in the realities of geo-politics and religion for us to step back. But for Paul Greengrass the most important thing is remembrance. He doesn't seek to make sense of the events, or to exploit them, but rather to find the spark of good amidst all the awfulness.
- Alistair Fairweather
This brilliant docudrama takes on the events of 9/11 and turns what could have been a tacky melodrama into a monument to the heroism of ordinary people.
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