Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Ben Sliney, Christian Clemenson, Khalid Abdalla
Having just seen United 93 it is fair to say I will not be rushing out to view it again any time soon. That does not mean it’s not a brilliant film. It is. As a well researched and detailed development of a hypothesis on what occurred on Flight United 93 it presents as an unsentimental and compelling dramatization that is both riveting and utterly terrifying.
It is also probably the most unsettling, dreadful 111 minutes you will spend in a cinema this year, owing in no small part to the casting and a painfully tense verisimilitude style re-enactment of events.
The film begins with a sweeping bird’s eye view of New York City at night, high above the skyscrapers and canals of traffic, before going inside the hotel room of the hijackers as their quietly portentous final prayers and preparations are completed.
From that point on United 93 is an unrelenting exercise in palpable tension, amped up to an almost unbearable level. Shifting between the fevered communications of Ground Control and the events as they begin to unfold both on the plane and in New York City, United 93 takes you inside two distinctly different environments; both claustrophobic and simmering with tension, but one far more chilling. The devastating sense of helplessness rings out with every failed or misunderstood attempt from the guys on the ground to; 1) find out what’s going on 2) get the necessary fighter jets where they need to be and 3) establish a clear line of communication.
Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy) resists any temptation he may have had to preach political or nationalistic feeling. Instead, he presents real people in a very real yet inconceivable scenario, focusing on their reactions and in some cases paralyzing, fear induced inaction. The film’s potency undoubtedly lays in Greengrass’ ability to present such material without agenda, coupled with his decision to use a largely untested cast, made up of amateur actors and real life pilots and airport staff.
A perfect example of this is the decision to cast Ben Sliney as himself. As National Operations Manager of the FAA when things went pear shaped, Sliney was firmly in the thick of things on 9/11. Indeed it was he who gave the order to ground all incoming and outgoing flights from America. Few actors would be better equipped to play such a role.
Greengrass has been forthright about the hypothetical nature of a sensitive and controversial reconstruction, emphasising its limitations, but just as significantly focusing on how making such a film can examine the fragility of life and the systems we rely on every day for information- an objective he achieves without relegating any one person or body to scapegoat status.
He has unapologetically stressed the following points throughout a series of interviews. Firstly, this is what we think may well have happened on this plane. Secondly, this is what we think these people would have done, based on our conversations with their families and discussions we’ve had. And finally, this is the situation we believe made it possible for the hijackers to take over a plane of people with a pen knife, some play dough and batteries. Greengrass does not dictate which elements he may intuit as being more credible or compelling than others, allowing the film to speak for itself. In this he succeeds.
The questions that have endlessly been asked of United 93 and Greengrass himself, is why make a film like this? What point does it serve? If it isn’t entertainment, and it most certainly isn’t, then what is its purpose? Well, besides the obvious of observing ordinary people experiencing the most acutely terrifying flourish of emotions- fear, anxiety, terror, courage- and paying respect to the victims, there is also the discourse a film like this will provoke within a post 9/11 climate. Tim Bevan, the film’s producer is on record as saying “there should be arguments on the street outside the cinema about whether this film should have been made or not.”
Putting the garnering of controversy aside for a moment, if one were to view the combustion and frenzy of what occurred within that plane as a microcosm in which to examine today’s terror charged climate, then United 93 resonates on both a collective and individual level. In the face of escalating chaos and mayhem the film asks; how does one set about gaining even a modicum of control? The answer rests somewhere between doing nothing and dying, and fighting back only to suffer the same fate. In the varying degrees of tragedy that are inevitable in today’s epoch, it is the way we behave both collectively and individually that will come to define moments such as those confronted by the passengers on United 93.
As the passengers become aware of their plight most realise there is little more they can do than pass on their love to family members on the ground. In the face of such an atrocity, it seems a fitting and optimistic contrast that in the final reaches of being it is choked up messages of love that are whispered into mobile phones.
Some viewers will inevitably take issue with this film, due to its inherent and unavoidably disturbing content. Yet, in a very real and telling way United 93 forces you to ask yourself; how would I react in a similar situation? For most of us it is a question we cannot answer, and god willing shall never have to.