As you look at reviews for this film I predict that you’ll find many that will fall into two categories. The first will praise the film for tackling such a tragedy. The second will dismiss the film out-of-hand for exploiting 9/11 for box office cash. I’m going to try something a little different and try to review the film first and most importantly as a film and only then address the social/moral grounds.
3 & 1/2 Stars
United 93 is an interesting and captivating film without actually haviing much to say about the 9/11 terrorist attack. In many ways it can be compared to your average action/thriller but because the events that it deals with are both factual and terrifying one would thing it would try a little harder to be more.
The film isn’t an analytical look examining the causes and effects of the event. Nor is it a character study as it never stays with any character long enough for us to distinguish one from the other (we don’t even get their names). Nor does the film try to put the events into a historical perspective.
So what does the film do? The film’s main objective is to present writer/direct Paul Greengrass’s vision of what took place that fateful morning on one of the hijacked planes and on the ground as air traffic controllers, and the US military and government, unsure of what was happening, and unable to communicate effectively, failed to stop one tragedy from becoming four.
A group of Arab terrorists (Lewis Alsamari, Jamie Harding, Omar Berdouni, Khalid Abdalla) board Untied Arilines flight 93 on the morning of September 11. Because of delays with take-off they wait on the runway while members of other terrorist cells hijack their planes and proceed and crash them into their targets. Finally the terrorist on flight 93 seize control and as the frightened passengers learn from talking with their loved ones on airine and cell phones about other planes that have crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon they decide they have no choice but to fight back by trying to retake the plane.
The film tries very hard not to exploit the situation and for the most part does suceed. It would have been extremely easy to make this either overtly sentimental, preachy, or in bad taste too action oriented. Director Paul Greengrass provides an evenhand in showing the various reactions ane emotions of the terrorists, the flight personel on the ground, the military, and the passengers.
One choice the film makes is to keep each of the passengers nameless. Though the actors are credited with playing the actual people aboard the plane the film doesn’t take time to look at who they are and how they came to be onboard. This groups all of them, flight crew included, into a single group of victims and potential heroes. However it doesn’t really let us get to know the actual people to any degree. So the film fails in its attempt to make the people seem more real by not distinguishing them from each other; it only makes them into nameless stock film characters in a disaster film. We learn more about the terrorists (though to be fair, not much more), who don’t even speak English and aren’t given subtitles. The film is relying entirely on the viewer knowing that these events are real and offers no on-screen reason to invest in the characters or situation.
The visual style of the film really bothered me. The film is shot almost entirely on small sets (the plane and cramped offices) with shaky hand-held crameras. The motivation behind this choice seems to be the cramped sets and your face shooting style would give the film a more realisic look. The result however is sketchy at best. The style is annoying, often not capturing what we want to see, bobbing up and down and taking your focus off the action to wonder if the camera man has cerebral palsy, and in the end feels cheap rather than real.
Where the film succeeds is in keeping your interest and attention. Despite it’s many faults (and the fact that you know how it will end) you still get caught up in the drama. The reaction scenes to the planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are well handled as is the sense of incomprehension by those not believing what is happening before their eyes.
Director Paul Greengrass makes an interesting decision in casting many of the flight controllers as themselves which adds a little to the realism and credibitiy of the film. Actually all the best scenes of the film take place on the ground as the various workers try to understand what has happened and figure out a plan of action. I wish the entire movie had been made from this perspective and we were never shown what happened on the plane. I think it would have been much more meaningful and would have caught the feeling of helplessness and hoplelessness so many felt that day.
The cast and crew do a remarkable job making a film that it can be debated whether or not should be made and if it (and to what level it) exploits the tragedy of 9/11. Despite the flaws of the film there is much of value here and it is definately worth seeing; though a film with this subject manner should have more to say rather than just put on a show. Although Greengrass gives us a compelling look at the events of that morning by the end we don’t know anything more than we did when the film began about the people onbard flight 93. It’s an ambitious attempt but the movie would have better served to try and do less and do it better. If the film had just focused on the terrorists, or the ground, or a small section of the pasesngers it could have gone into more depth than the cursiorary glance we get at all these separate stories.