Just trying to prepare myself to see this. The reviews definitely encourage me to.
'United 93' Is a Gripping, Sensitive Portrayal of Terror Victims' Brave Final Act
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006; Page C01
It's difficult to fathom why anyone would want to relive the events of Sept. 11, 2001. For those of us who lost friends and loved ones that day, who were in New York and Washington and experienced the tragedy firsthand, that grievous morning is never far from consciousness. When nothing more than a fine summer day and a bluebird sky can bring it all back, who needs the movies?
But the movies, for better and for worse, are part of our cultural grammar, part of our need to impose narrative sense on that which defies both narrative and sense. There are some filmgoers who will see "United 93" out of morbid voyeurism, some looking for meaning and catharsis, others simply to bear witness to sacrifice. (On this level, "United 93" could well become a secular phenomenon on par with "The Passion of the Christ.") Whether they are rubberneckers, pilgrims or patriots, those who choose to see "United 93" will be rewarded with a film that resists pandering to them or any other constituency. Tough, compassionate, devoid of false sentiment or cheap spectacle, "United 93" approaches its otherwise questionable enterprise—the reenactment, some might say exploitation, of a gruesome mass murder—with unflinching tact, control and aesthetic rigor. Considering the perversities of a world in which "United 93" will be listed on the multiplex marquee with "Scary Movie 4," we're surpassingly fortunate that this is the movie we got.
BELOW: Passengers prepare to fight back against the hijackers of United Flight 93, a story that director Paul Greengrass tells with exquisite dignity. (By Jonathan Olley—Universal Studios)
To the extent that "United 93" succeeds, when it could so easily and miserably have failed, all credit is due to writer-director Paul Greengrass, a filmmaker of superb technical skill and, more important to the subject at hand, moral seriousness. As he did in his breakout 2002 film "Bloody Sunday," about the ill-fated civil rights march in Derry, Ireland, in 1972—and, like the classic 1966 film "The Battle of Algiers," which seems to be his chief inspiration for both films—here Greengrass proves to be a filmmaker of humility, courage, precision and maturity.
And, like the earlier film, he tells the story of a day that changed the world simply by starting at the beginning. Four Muslim men pray in a hotel room, preparing to catch a flight at the Newark airport; meanwhile, pilots, flight attendants, passengers and air traffic controllers make their workaday way to their own appointments with destiny.
In Newark, small talk about kids, vacations, the thunderstorm last night. At the Federal Aviation Administration command center in Herndon, operations manager Ben Sliney shows up for his first day of work. At the Northeast Air Defense Sector in Upstate New York, Maj. Kevin Nasypany starts up some simulations against a fictional Russian incursion. The 37 passengers and seven crew members aboard Flight 93 to San Francisco wait patiently during its takeoff delay, sleeping, chatting, taking breakfast orders. Who can forget that 9/11 was just another day, until it wasn't. (In the film's most shattering scene, one reminiscent of the famous cafe sequence in "The Battle of Algiers," hijacker Ziad Jarrah, impeccably played by Khalid Abdalla, sits in the airport's waiting area with the people he's about to kill; is that ambivalence that plays across his face, or merely apprehension?)
Artfully intercutting between scenes at the airport, on the plane, at air traffic towers throughout the Eastern Seaboard and Midwest and at the air defense headquarters, Greengrass creates a taut, unnerving tick-tock of the four planes and their fates, mostly through the eyes of the air traffic controllers and Sliney (who like many of his colleagues plays himself in the film). With his characteristic control of tone and pacing, Greengrass takes viewers on the terrible, swift journey from routine to flat-out horror, though in hindsight, that journey was anything but swift. More than heroism or history, "United 93" is about the agonizingly slow dawning of reality, as the people onscreen flail through a slough of their own assumptions and complacencies to finally punch through the awful surface.
Using Sliney and the other air traffic controllers as the audience's surrogates was a stroke of genius on Greengrass's part, as was his choice to cast an outstanding ensemble of unknown character actors in the film; one need only contemplate a title card reading "Matthew McConaughey as Todd Beamer" to realize how easily "United 93" could have gone very, very wrong. Indeed although Beamer, like every other passenger on the flight, is portrayed in an unnamed but thoroughly specific performance (in his case by an actor named David Alan Basche), his signature tagline from the day—"Let's roll"—is thankfully underplayed. In fact, the only discernible nod to dramatic exigencies is the film's penultimate scene of Beamer and his fellow passengers storming the plane's cockpit; most analysts have concluded that they never breached the door.
But that's a meaningless detail compared with everything that "United 93" gets right—the dailiness, the dread and, most important, the steadfast refusal to lead viewers by the nose through what will surely be myriad complicated emotions. (Because of United 93's probable target of the White House or the Capitol, for many people reading this particular newspaper the chief emotion will likely be gratitude.)
Ambivalence seems to be a painfully inadequate, mewling response to the courage of United 93's passengers who, according to Hemingway's definition of the term, acted not in fearlessness but despite their fear. This is a film that demands a different vocabulary, one that conveys both misgivings about our need for these fetishistic cinematic rituals, and admiration for the discipline and dignity with which an artist has brought the incomprehensible into lucid and uncompromising focus.
"United 93" is a great movie, and I hated every minute of it.
United 93 (111 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity and intense sequences of terror and violence.