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France/United Kingdom/USA 2006
Directed by
Paul Greengrass
110 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

United 93

Synopsis: On the fateful day of September 11, 2001, Flight United 93 was taken over by hijackers. It was the only one of the four doomed aircraft in which the passengers managed to get news of their plight out to the world. This film examines, in near real time, the last hours of all those involved in the tragedy and their attempt to change the course of their ghastly fate.

British director Paul Greengrass is best known for his 2002 film Bloody Sunday, about the gunning down by British soldiers of Irish civil right activists. He has a strong sensitivity to matters of social conscience and, not having a typical American mindset, was a great choice of director to tackle this highly sensitive project.  He interviewed more than 100 family members of the 40 or so passengers and crew who died that day. All the families were very keen on having the film made and provided input as to how their family member was likely to have behaved in the circumstances, seeing the film as an opportunity to honour and remember their loved ones.

United 93 is more than an tribute however. It’s a gripping rendition of what life is like for ordinary individuals when things beyond reason and understanding happen. It’s a marker in time to that frightening day when indeed the world changed from everything we’d ever known and fear began to dominate so many aspects of everyday Western life.

Greengrass keeps the story strictly within a tight framework – we see only the passengers, the crew, the hijackers and the flight controllers. He begins with an overhead pan of New York streets, then we hear the sound of Arabic prayers and see the hijackers ritually shaving themselves in preparation for their mission. Cut to a commonplace scene at Newark airport, of people resignedly checking in, going about a familiar activity. Everyday airport scenes of fuelling, flight crew arriving, people on mobile phones, air traffic controllers talking the pilot through the delayed take-off.  No one person is given greater importance as the story arc does not single out any one character.

Once the drama begins, the film constantly cuts between the various air traffic control centres, the U.S. Air Force who are unable to take action because of confusing instructions, and the passengers themselves. The suspense builds steadily and although we know the outcome, an atmosphere of tension and dread is generated and we find ourselves willing that there be a different outcome, as if wishing could make it so.

We can easily relate to the ordinariness of the people, which is underscored by Greengrass’s clever casting of non-stars and no famous faces to distract us from almost believing that a video camera was actually in the cabin that day.  Rather than use actors, many experienced pilots and crew were utilised for the roles; some were friends of those who perished. Civilian and military controllers who had actually been on duty that day were also used, and one in particular, Ben Sliney, with three decades in air traffic control, and heavily involved on the actual day, was cast as himself.

There is no extraneous music used to create tension – the tension is there constantly in the dramatically realistic way the movie is shot, at times with a lot of hand-held camera work.  It is testament to the power of the film-making that during the last 15 or so minutes I became more and more distressed watching these people making their farewell calls, comforting each other, while the braver men desperately hatched a plan to overcome the hijackers, clinging to a shred of hope. As the hijackers invoked the name of God for their crazed mission and the plane plummeted earthwards, I was overwhelmed by compassion for all caught up in the lunacy.

For a gut-wrenching and sobering cinema experience United 93 has to be near the top of the list.




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