By Tony Buchsbaum
When it was released earlier this year, United 93 generated big buzz for being the first major film to depict 9/11 in all its horror. Director Paul Greengrass did a lot of very frank press about how he had the victims' families' permission and blessing to do the film, which dramatizes what happened on the United aircraft whose passengers fought for control before the plane crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania.
I wasn't sure about seeing the film in a theater; I have my own 9/11 connections, my own ghosts, and I wasn't willing to bare them or share them, even in the dark, in a theater of strangers. But at home, watching a DVD -- that's a different story.
I'm glad that I have now seen United 93, and I highly recommend it. Greengrass has crafted a drama that would be horrifying even if it weren't true, or at least based on truth. Of course, there's no way to know what really happened on the plane, save for recordings and recollections of phone calls the passengers made to their loved ones once the hijackers took control. But it hardly matters. The film is a harrowing depiction nonetheless.
It begins on that stunning morning when thoughts of terrorism and its aftermath had no spot on our consciousness, no blip on our collective radar. "Homeland Security" was not a phrase that had entered our lexicon. We were not at war. The President was seen as simply inept or illequipped, not an embarrassment. It was just another September Tuesday, and a few dozen passengers boarded their flight from Newark to Los Angeles. During the first half of the film, the scenes aboard the plane are gloriously dull because, well, who knew? We know, of course, as citizens and as the audience: the hijackers are shown as intimately as the passengers, taking their morning prayers, displaying expressions and emotions that could only be read as ambivalence. Though we argue that these men were inhuman, Greengrass shows them to be entirely human, with all the doubt that implies. They know what they're about to do, and in the film they're clearly unsure.
We see what's going on at air traffic control in Newark, and later in Boston, as planes do not respond to communications, then disappear from the scopes. We see the reactions as the two planes strike the towers of the World Trade Center. Everything we all felt in those moments is on the faces and in the eyes of the actors: the shock, the disbelief, the knowledge that nothing will ever be the same again.
All during this time, life on United 93 is normal. But soon enough, the hijackers take the plane, plunging the passengers and the audience into an unstoppable nosedive of tragedy.
Aside from a few actors whose faces you might recognize, most everyone in United 93 will be strangers to you, and that was a wise choice. We didn't know the real people; having that slight disconnect of seeing recognizable actors portraying them wouldn't have worked nearly as well. The fact that these actors seem like ordinary people gives the film an enhanced verisimilitude -- and frankly makes it all the more brutal to watch.
United 93 is, for all intents and purposes, a reenactment. Greengrass has assembled teams in front of and behind the camera who were clearly dedicated to capturing one slice of the massive events of that day and to do doing thoughtful, at times even restrained tribute to the men and women who successfully diverted the plane from its destination in Washington, DC. That they are to be applauded and honored goes without saying; that the film should be, as well, must be acknowledged.