David Alan Basche
It was bound to happen one of these days: Hollywood would start makingtheatrical films based on the events of September 11, 2001. Among them areOliver Stone’s World Trade Center, due to be released in August of2006, and Mike Binder’s Empty City, a drama starring Adam Sandler (!)about a husband who loses his wife in the WTC attacks, also due out thisyear. First out of the gate, however, is director Paul Greengrass’ United 93, adocudrama that takes a no-holds barred look at the events that took place onthe one hijacked plane that failed to meet its objective.
United Airlines Flight 93, a 757 with 40 passengers and flight crew onboard, was the fourth and final hijacked flight to take off that dark day.This film recreates the flight in real-time, from the delayed takeoff to thehijacking to the realization by those onboard that their plane was part of amuch bigger operation (they found out about the World Trade Center andPentagon attacks via cell and airline phones) and then to the final momentswhen, realizing the fate that awaited them, the passengers united andovertook the hijackers in a valiant attempt to reclaim the plane.
When I had first heard about both United 93 and World TradeCenter being in production, I felt both nauseous and pissed off (but notsurprised). Turning 9/11 into a night out at the cinema was stomach-churningenough, but an even bigger ill-inducing element was how they would go aboutdoing it. It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to see these horrificevents become some sort of jingoistic, manipulative melodrama you’d expect aChuck Norris, Harrison Ford type starring in, complete with aHollywood-conjured ending where one man would save the day and defeat theterrorists. And yes, I also found myself asking the two questions many havealso voiced over and over and probably continue to do so until the next filmor two is released this year: Is it indeed too soon, and more importantly,what is the point to making these films?
Well, I can’t speak for Stone or Binder’s films since neither have beenfinished nor released (although after Alexander, I really am dreadingWorld Trade Center for reasons other than subject matter), but I cantalk about United 93. After sitting in the theater for what may verywell be approximately 100 of the most intense, brutal and stunning momentsof my adult film-going life, it is safe to say United 93 was not what I hadexpected, or was dreading. Free of manipulation, melodrama, exploitation andany other affectation Hollywood usually bestows, United 93 arrives asthe first truly great movie of 2006. And, in answering one of theaforementioned questions, it is not a moment too soon.
To begin with, I doubt you could have found a better person to handlethis project than writer/director Paul Greengrass. After doing exhaustiveresearch that included the 9/11 Commission Report, actual cockpit recordingsand the participation of the family members of the Flight 93 crew andpassengers, Greengrass employs the same style of pseudo-documentaryfilmmaking to this film that he did to his great 2002 drama, BloodySunday.
That even-handed (Fear not: the terrorists are still the badguys), guerrilla technique effectively puts the viewer right in the middleof the day’s events. By using a cast of largely unknown actors and real-lifeindividuals who were working in the air traffic and military control centersthat day and with the expert technical assistance of cinematographer BarryAckroyd, Editors Clare Douglas and Christopher Rouse and composer JohnPowell, Greengrass realistically conveys the chaos, confusion, unity andheroism of the fateful day.
This September will mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11. As the events ofthat horrific day begin to recede into history, an aura of complacencypermeates our society today, despite the continuing war on terrorism, theconstant global threat posed by Al Qaeda, and increasing focus and scrutinyby the media.
The point of United 93‘s existence is twofold: to serve as atribute to those innocents who perished on that day, and to serve as a harshreminder of what we are up against and what could easily happen again. Givenits intensity and level of brutal realism, the film is not for everyone (itwas almost too much for me at times), but for those who are willing toexperience it, they will discover a gut-wrenching, emotionally devastatingmasterpiece that will be cathartic for some, unbearable for the rest andnecessary for all.