United 93 meticulously recreates the hijacking of that flight on September 11th, 2001. The fate of the plane, its crew, passengers, and hijackers, is well-known, but there is value in creating a record on film. The media leading up to the movie’s release has been something of a referendum. Audiences across the country even booed the trailer, something nearly unheard of. The question, asked endlessly in articles about the movie, is "Is it too soon?" That depends. Do we want to re-open those wounds in the hope of catharsis? At one point on my way to the theater, I turned my car around and headed for home, then turned it around again.
No matter what kind of film United 93 turned out to be, it’s profiteering. But thankfully, the film is simultaneously a serious work made with great respect for what we know happened, with reasonable speculation where facts are not known. It sidesteps many of the trappings of a thriller, which would have made it intolerable.
United 93 ‘s power comes from its mundane details: the process of fuelling the plane; pilots chatting about last night’s weather; an old woman who needs a glass of water to take her pills. There is virtually no "Hollywood" dialog, and only two actors who are recognizable at all. It’s the right approach. The ordinary faces provide a patina of reality, and though some of the parts are played by the non-actors who lived them in real life, there’s surprisingly little bad acting. We know that the film was made with the participation of many of the families of lost loved ones. You can sense the research that went into it, and the desire not to trivialize the story; the accumulation of facts is so authoritative, it overrules your objections. Throughout, somber music is used only sparingly; when it is used, it heightens the emotional impact to excruciating levels.
United 93 is nearly apolitical, but it makes two strong points. In recreating who knew what, and when — without pointing any fingers — it shows us how unprepared we were. The idea that planes could be hijacked and used as missiles was the stuff of Tom Clancy thrillers. When the picture finally starts to develop, no one appears to be in charge. The FAA isn’t communicating with NORAD, and NORAD has no idea what its procedures should be. It takes hours to scramble the jets, and they are sent the wrong direction. No one knows whether the fighters even have the authority to shoot down civilian aircraft. NORAD finally learns that this requires the direct approval of the President; by the time they get that approval, at 10:18 am, it’s all over. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 fills in the gap: Bush was in Florida, not on vacation for once, but reading My Pet Goat to a classroom of children; and when told America was under attack, he froze in place for seven minutes.
The film’s second political purpose is more subtle and controversial. We see one of the hijackers make a phone call, repeating "I love you" three times. Later, the passengers, who also know they are going to die, do the same thing; the cabin is full of the sounds of weeping and "I love you". The film begins with the hijackers praying. Later, as the plane nears its destiny, the passengers say the Lord’s Prayer, and the hijackers, in the cockpit, pray to Allah. The writer/director, Paul Greengrass, is committed to presenting the facts, and one of those facts is that the terrorists were human, capable of love, and believed they were doing God’s will.
This is not a good looking film. The camera simply aims at muddled action, and in the cutting room director Paul Greengrass and his editors, Clare Douglas and Christopher Rouse, chopped it up and tried to build rhythm and sense. Sometimes they succeeded. What holds it together is Greengrass’ painstaking homework — his passion to get the story right. That makes the film effective — and honorable.
United 93 is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.