This review originally appears in The American Thinker
There is a moment in the film United 93 where director Paul Greengrass takes a small step backward from the unrelenting intimate universe into which he has boldly thrust the audience and allows a glimmer of the larger truth of September 11 to be revealed.
Having committed themselves to their heroic effort to take back the cockpit, the passengers are in position in the back of the plane, the larger, stronger men occupying the first three rows closest to the terrorists. Then, it hits you. The look on their faces as they steel themselves to make the attempt mirrors exactly the looks on the faces of the hijackers just prior to their attack as the terrorists also had to summon up the courage to carry out their dastardly deed.
Whether intended or not, Greengrass reveals the faces of men at war. And even though there are no grand, overarching truths about humanity, or good and evil, or the superiority of one set of beliefs over another in U-93 (there is a short scene toward the end of the film that shows both passengers and terrorists praying), the singular fact that “they” attacked us and “we” fought back cannot be denied, cannot be hidden despite the desperate attempt by some over the last 5 years to do so. We are at war.
And for those who insist that we are not, that the War on Terror is some gigantic plot of the Bush Administration to win elections, or seize power, or exercise some kind of monarchical control over the American people, United 93 at bottom, shows this kind of 9/10 thinking to be seriously deluded.
Indeed, there has been an attempt by many on the left to make war on the War on Terror itself, as if the enemy is not thousands of fanatical Muslims hell bent on killing Americans but rather a domestic ideology that seeks to prevent such a catastrophe. For at bottom, what many on the left seek to obscure is the simple necessity of acknowledging that a conflict exists in the first place. On an existential level, they can deny the reality of war by turning cause and effect on its head by justifying terrorism as a logical outgrowth of US policies in the Middle East or toward Muslims in general. It is this intellectual dishonesty that is successfully countered by U-93 in its brutally simple yet deeply emotional subtext; a reminder of what it was like to be an American that day.
There is no overt political context to the film which is why it succeeds so brilliantly. Its unflinching look at the failures of government on that day points no fingers, takes no names, assigns no blame. Instead, the almost documentary nature of the movie allows Greengrass to explore a particular theme that the 9/11 Commission tried to bring out but failed miserably in doing so due to the intrusion of partisan politics in its public hearings: The United States of America was fast asleep on September 11. And the wake up call found us all in a state of denial so profound that the resulting paralysis by the military, by the government – by all of us – contributed in no small way to the scope and dimension of the tragedy.
This is where the psychic pain for the audience is at its worst; watching first the disbelief, then the concern, then the near panic of total confusion as the FAA, air traffic controllers, and even the military all watch helplessly as their operations sputter and limp, eventually grinding to a muddled halt. The Air Force Colonel’s plaintive cry to his superior, “I have two planes to defend the entire east coast” while watching the Twin Towers burning on the wall sized monitor in front of him elicits empathy for his plight while at the same time engendering outrage that our $300 billion military could be reduced to such impotence.
Similar feelings are evoked watching as the FAA tries to understand what is taking place in the skies over America that morning. Operations Manager Ben Sliney (playing himself in the movie) does not stint in portraying himself as befuddled as the rest of his staff as reports start coming in from all over the country about hijacked airplanes, whether or not they are still in the air, and where they are. There are times when their confusion becomes almost farcical as they are first unable to talk to anyone at the “Hijack Desk” except a janitor who happens to be cleaning the conference room and then their all important military liaison is nowhere to be found.
But it was in the air traffic control rooms in New York, Boston, and Cleveland where the confusion was at its most chilling. The New York controller handling United 175 that eventually crashed into the second tower grew more and more frustrated as the drama unfolded, the tension in his voice rising the closer the plane got to the city. As the plane dropped off the radar, the audience knowing it had plowed into the North Tower, he pathetically kept trying to raise the plane on the radio, unaware of the enormous tragedy that had just engulfed the country. Similar scenes in the other control rooms were equally heartbreaking as one by one, the aircraft dropped off the radar screens, the full import of the aircraft’s disappearance from their flickering monitors lost in their disbelief and utter confusion.
A large part of the film’s success can be attributed to Mr. Greengrass’s spare and unemotional script. By writing and filming in cinÃ©ma vÃ©ritÃ© , Greengrass avoided many pitfalls that a more traditional approach would have opened up, not the least of which would have been the temptation for including declaratory speeches by hijackers and passengers alike. As it was, the sheer ordinariness of both the characters and the dialogue contributed immensely the horror of what was happening on the plane as well as the heroic nature of the passengers.
From a technical standpoint, the film succeeds brilliantly on several levels. The extensive use of the hand held camera by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd often gives the unsettling feeling that the viewer is in the middle of the action on the screen. This is especially true at FAA Headquarters and the various air traffic control rooms in Boston, New York, and Cleveland. As the controllers struggle to understand what is happening in the skies over America and desperation begins to creep into their discussions, the audience finds themselves in the middle of these conversations as the camera pans quickly back and forth, focusing on the puzzled faces of the technicians as the horrible reality of what is happening begins to dawn on them.
The editing by Clare Douglas and Christopher Rouse is clean and crisp, approaching a sublime level of near perfection during the attacks on the cockpit by first the terrorists then the passengers. The claustrophobic setting of the film – the inside of a commercial airliner – presented enormous problems, especially sequences filmed in the cockpit. It is a testament to the editors’ skill that both attacks elicited searing, emotional responses from the audience.
The percussive and synthesized score by John Powell was mostly unobtrusive, jarring us awake at appropriate places in the film with hammer-like percussion blows to the heart as when the terrorists rose from their seats to begin their attack – a perfect low-key compliment to the film’s intimate setting.
And it is that intimacy that draws us in and nails the audience to their seats. We do not get to “know” any of the characters in any traditional sense. There is very little exposition since everyone knows what the outcome will be. Instead, Greengrass allows the events themselves to simply unfold in as close to real time as possible, making no judgements about either the hijackers or the passengers. Even the one passenger who sought to warn the terrorists, fearful that any attempt to take back the plane would kill them all, is portrayed in a neutral manner (although the fact that the gentleman spoke with a vaguely European accent is an interesting aside nonetheless).
In the end, Greengrass lets the story do all his talking. A wise choice since the it would have been a relatively simple matter to have made a histrionic, flag waving spectacular instead of the intensely personal drama U-93 turned out to be. For some, that intensity will open old emotional wounds from 9/11 making it very difficult for them to see this film. I would urge them to make the effort anyway. For United 93 will not heal the hurt but rather recall in a vividly personal, emotionally charged manner who and what caused our souls to be scorched that terrible day.
The farther we get from 9/11, the more urgent that reminder becomes. We’ve already had one wake-up call. Is it necessary for the fanatics to give us another?
Libertas has an excellent review of the film, echoing many of the themes I touch on here, although the reviewer is disappointed that Greengrass failed to provide much in the way of a moral context.