' Cinema Romantico: United 93

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

United 93

I’ve always held the opinion that a movie must be judged first and foremost as precisely that – a movie. Therefore, at its simplest terms, “United 93” is an astonishing achievement. Writer/Director Paul Greengrass presents the tragic events of that flight – and the on the ground – in real time. It is meticulous in its details. Its running time is 2 hours but not a single second of that is wasted. But, of course, “United 93” is not just a movie and we all know that. It is much more and on that level it works, too. But because of that it is also terrifying. The final ten minutes is beyond words, as intense as anything I’ve ever witnessed. Essentially, this film could become the be-all, end-all definition of the cinematic term “Not Easy To Watch”.

The film is documentary-like and that’s what gives it so much power. Watching the credits (which I had to in order to re-gather myself to face the night) it’s amazing to see how many people in the many air traffic control centers played themselves. This only lends to the heightened sense of reality. As the people board the plane we get snippets of routine events. A woman applies chapstick. Two old friends discuss their upcoming hiking trip to Yosemite. I, of course, identified with the guy who wonders if the stewardess can sprinkle some scotch into his coffee. On the ground, the air traffic controllers discuss ground delays from the previous day. But then they discover American Flight 11 has deviated from its course and all hell breaks loose.

It's agonizing to watch these events unfold from the ground as the air controllers and army personnel attempt to piece together what's going on. They are as confused as everyone was on that day. In fact, it's CNN that breaks the news to them of a "small plane" having hit the World Trade Center. There are planes they think may be hi-jacked but turn out not to be. Suddenly another plane disappears from radar. No one knows anything. Aboard United 93 the passengers at first are led to believe one of the hi-jackers has a bomb and the plane is headed back to the airport. But as passengers make calls home, information slowly funnels back to them regarding the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It becomes clear to them - it is a suicide mission.

At first glance it may seem everyone onboard Flight 93 lacks so-called characterization but this is untrue. True character comes via a character's decisions and these characters have to make decisions we all pray we never have to make. It's stunning - and deeply moving - to watch these people determine the plane's true intentions and then act. A stewardess breaks down but then has the resolve to advise they need to "boil water" to use as a weapon in an attempt to re-take the plane. The terrorists themselves are sketched not as over-the-top villains but simply as four men who have a mission and firmly believe in it.

There have been critics and others who have attacked the film for its fudging of the facts. We don't know for sure if the pilots were actually killed. We don't know if the passengers actually forced their way into the cockpit. But I'm not certain how facts can be fudged when they aren't, technically, facts. No one will ever know exactly what happened on that plane. Greengrass does his best with the limited knowledge we have and that's all that can be asked. He never resorts to cheap drama or grandstanding. These are frightened passengers who act out of desperation. And that makes them heroic.

The film has no interest in being an overt statement of patriotism. When we hear Todd Beamer's oft-repeated phrase "Let's roll", it comes from off-camera and is buried in with other over-lapping dialogue. It simply shows us what happened. Nothing more. But even then, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what I think. Or what you think. Or what any film critic thinks. The question is whether or not the 44 souls who perished aboard United 93 would feel the film did them justice. I sincerely think each and every one of them would answer yes.

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