For a pure visceral experience, “United 93” is definitely worth seeing. Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, the film shows how the events unfolded that day from various perspectives, including from the air traffic controllers, the military, and finally the passengers and crew.
It’s a powerful film, and you are left feeling gutted. Had I written this review immediately after seeing “United 93,” I probably would have been more effusive in my praise. Now that I’ve let the experience sit for a few days, I’m left feeling a bit disastified. The reason is that I feel that the victims of that flight deserved more. And I think the audience also needs more. Let me explain.
The story could have begun at any point. It could have started with the four terrorists taking flight lessons in Florida. It could have begun much before that, but Greengrass decided to start with an image of the terrorists praying to Allah. Throughout the film, these terrorists speak mainly in Arabic and reveal little about themselves. We never learn that three came from Saudi Arabia and one from Lebanon, or that most of them received military training in Afghanistan. They are just Muslim fanatics, an idea reinforced not only by their behavior but also by the fact that they are shown thanking Allah for a successful operation. Why this bothers me is that to most Americans, Muslim equals terrorist. Without any explanation as to who these guys were and why they weren’t typical of Muslims in general, their depiction could easily create more hatred. You don’t come away from “United 93” wanting to hug a Muslim, believe me. You feel raw anger, and that’s dangerous. This isn’t “Air Force One,” a fictional story. It’s a part of American history, and even after five years, the wounds are still bloody.
As for the rest of the film, the 37 passengers and seven crew members are shown realistically. Some are shown crying, wondering why this had to happen to them; others, once they realize that they are on a suicide course, decide to fight back. To his credit, Greengrass knew that making this film was controversial. After all, we’re still in a war because of the events that took place on Sept. 11. To make sure that no one objected, the director contacted the family members of the passengers and crew to get their approval. I’m assuming he also relied heavily on the “Final 9/11 Commission Report.” How does he know what went on in the plane? He doesn’t completely, but he can piece together a lot from the plane’s black box and from the passengers’ phone calls. He also gets eyewitness accounts from the air traffic controllers and the military. We know this, because many of the actual participants play themselves in the film. Overall, it’s a noble effort to recreate a moment in history. You won’t come away from it unmoved. In fact, most people are reporting that once the film ends, the cinema is completely silent. What can you say? You need to digest what you’ve just seen.
But back to my disastification. If you are going to pick at these scabs, why just recreate that last day? What purpose does that serve? For the families, maybe it gave them closure. But for the average cinemagoer, who is becoming increasingly disgruntled with the war in Iraq, I think we need more. More explanation. More analysis. How could this happen? What led up to this? I already think these people are heroic for fighting back. Now I want to know why they had to. If anything I hope that “United 93” opens the door to more films about Sept. 11. But in the next one, I want more than the stirring of our emotions.