A unique film about a unique event, writer-director Paul Greengrass' United 93 employs exceptionally assured docudramatic technique to dramatize the flight of the only hijacked plane not to reach its intended target on September 11, 2001. To pull off this daunting task, Universal Pictures and Working Title Films wisely (and literally) put their money on Greengrass, the British filmmaker whose 2002 narrative feature Bloody Sunday brilliantly evoked and examined 1972's Derry massacre.
But if United 93 is as logistically complex and carefully controlled as Bloody Sunday, the new film also lacks Bloody Sunday's usefulness and insight, and the distinction is important. Coming as it does only five years after the event it depicts, United 93 does not have the benefit of the long lens of perspective—as the Moussaoui trial proves, the history of 9/11 continues to be written. The "too soon" choruses should not be sung about Joe Six-pack's emotional sensitivity, but his susceptibility to accept Greengrass' skillful documentary-style technique as fact and not the historical fiction it is.
Of course, Greengrass and companies are entitled to put United 93 into the marketplace, but what end will it serve? To entertain? Perhaps for those entertained by horror (a perverse opportunity to enter a forbidden place, stare down terror, and—unlike most of the characters—live to fight another day). To educate? I can't speak for every audience member, but United 93 taught me precious little about the event that I did not already know, and Greengrass' diversions from the record—some narratively necessary to bridge historical gaps, some dramatic conveniences—serve to remind that the film cannot substitute for journalism (the presence of some of the event's real players notwithstanding).
No, United 93's overt virtual-reality mission is to grab for the gut, to move an audience, to evoke a (guaranteed) visceral response. Mission accomplished: Greengrass masterfully riles the audience with dramatic irony. Chipper passengers chat into cell phones as they sit at the gate. The flight crew paces through another day at "the office." A late arriving passenger just makes the flight before the heavy closing of the plane door, an unbearable finality on which Greengrass and his crack editing team pointedly linger.
Though Greengrass keeps his viewers on tenterhooks, he simultaneously lulls them with the bureaucratic roundelays of air traffic control, the real-time mundanity of the flight's first forty-six minutes, and the insistent delay of the terrorists. When action erupts, in tight shots and quick cuts, it improbably jolts an audience that, after all, knows the outcome. The drama of United 93 is predicated entirely on action, and as such, character development is minimal: the passengers are American Everymen and women, and the terrorists stand in for all suicidal true believers with a burning hatred of the American machinery.
Greengrass begins and ends the film with the prayer of both camps—representing both human commonality and the gulf of language, culture, and ideology that separate us—on the way to the final struggle for control that Greengrass has, with some liberty, imagined as metaphor ("a physical struggle for the controls of a gasoline-fueled 21st-century flying machine between a band of suicidal religious fanatics and a group of innocents drawn at random from amongst us all," Greengrass calls it in the press notes. "The struggle for our world today"). All of the characters remain ciphers of endurance, some driven by hope and some clinging with despair to fatalistic final moments—representatives of both sides whisper, "What are we waiting for?".
Greengrass shows enough restraint to qualify United 93 as a cinematic Rorshach test of geopolitical viewpoint. One might ask if the mortal revenge (ever trendy in movies) exacted on a terrorist during the passengers' revolt is constructed for a cheer or a recoil: the answer, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder. This "detail," like many others, is necessarily born of conjecture; Greengrass orchestrated improvisation for the Flight 93 scenes to achieve a "plausible truth." Mostly, United 93 sadly, simply observes as kamikaze warriors radiate terror-stricken death with nervous conviction, and their enemies muster a last-ditch defense.
"We're at war with someone," concludes Ben Sliney, head of the FAA's National Air Traffic Control Center in Herndon, Virginia. Along with eight of the other actual participants, including Major James Fox of the North East Air Defense Command Center, Sliney plays himself, recreating his fateful first day on the job. The stunt casting contributes to the film's gambit of verisimilitude, and helps to excuse the film's arguable haste—Greengrass was able both to mine expertise and coach effective performances.
But even on the elaborate set recreations of the National Air Traffic Control Center, N.E.A.D.S., and the Boston, New York, and Cleveland Air Traffic Control Centers, "truth" is flexible, with Greengrass ascribing to Sliney alone the crucial order to ground all flights (the decision almost certainly involved the input of FAA head Jane Garvey). Here, Greengrass depicts the inability of the various centers and the FAA to coordinate information swiftly enough to make a difference, but indignantly emphasizes the irresponsibility of an M.I.A. President, the only man able to authorize military engagement with runaway commercial flights.
As led by Greengrass, the actors playing the passengers of Flight 93 are scrupulous and subtle in their work. Much has been made of the cast's non-star anonymity (though actors like David Rasche, Gregg Henry, Christian Clemenson, and John Rothman are prolific enough to be familiar faces), but it's their breathless focus and raw emotion—as much as Greengrass' design—that locate the film in the pit of the viewer's stomach.
Certainly, Greengrass hopes his exceedingly well-crafted film will be accepted as a dramatic memorial in the "never forget" vein, but we should also remember how little recorded detail we have of just how the events inside United Flight 93 unfolded, and that even the "official" story about 9/11 has changed frequently in the last five years. Perhaps Greengrass' admirably respectful version of the story has the greatest power to get under our skins with its apocalyptic accumulation of terror, but what will we think of United 93 in five years or, for that matter, fifty? Will it seem a useful history, a useful catharsis, or just another post-millennial, fear-ridden dispatch from Terror-Alert Central?