United 93

2010 November 24

Note: It’s funny how I wrote this post right as the TSA shit seems to be hitting the fan, but I won’t bother to comment on that here.

It took me far too long to watch this film. When it was first announced, I thought it was a disgusting exploitation of 9/11 or some similarly moronic teenage bullshit. I realize now how much of an idiot I was. I should have listened to not just the critics that lauded the film, but fellow internet denizens who absolutely loved it.

It is impossible for me to imagine a better film to chronicle the events of 9/11 than United 93. I haven’t seen World Trade Center and have no plans to, but Oliver Stone shouldn’t have even been allowed near the subject matter after this film already existed (a Twitter buddy pointed out that Stone shouldn’t be allowed near anything). Yeah, you could focus a story around the firefighters and policemen down at Ground Zero, but even United 93 sufficiently touched upon the feelings we had when we saw those terrifying images of the Twin Towers.

No matter what you might think of Paul Greengrass’ two Bourne films, the shaky-cam aesthetic works flawlessly here. Everything in the movie is happening in real-time, and Greengrass does a masterful job of putting you there right in the middle of the events.

Outside of some establishing scenes in the very beginning, the entire film takes place within air control centers, NORAD, and the eponymous flight. The film reminded me a bit of Apollo 13 in that sense, only the latter is typical Ron Howard melodramatic sap (still a good movie), while United 93 is far more restrained, yet still devastatingly affecting.

I’m not the first person to have this thought: “If United 93 was Schindler’s List, then World Trade Center would be Apollo 13.” That analogy might be a bit off, but I think you get it. Really, wouldn’t Saving Private Ryan in Apollo 13‘s spot make more sense in that analogy? But like me, the reviewer no doubt wanted to namedrop Apollo 13.

Which brings me to another (perhaps unfair) point: United 93 consists of mostly unknown actors. I recognized one, maybe two, people in the entire film. It’s not like Tom Hanks is the hero on the flight that rallies other passengers to storm the cockpit; nor is Nicholas Cage running around the rubble of the World Trade Center with a ridiculous mustache. The low-budget nature of the film allows it to feel more authentic by not pulling you out of the moment with an actor you’ve seen flying fighter jets or playing a international secret agent before. You feel as if these truly could have been the people on the flight, or the ones trying to make sense of the madness down on the ground.

It is through these people on the ground, in the control rooms, that Greengrass allows the viewer to re-experience the attacks of 9/11. It seems a bit strange that the National Air Traffic Control Center or NORAD wouldn’t realize what happened before they turn on CNN, but the film does allege to recreate the events as accurately as possible, and it’s those all-too-familiar television images that immediately evoke the feelings of that day. The controllers first seem nonplussed at the idea of a hijacked plane and then stand in disbelief and confusion once footage of the first attack comes up on the big screen. I immediately thought of my 10th grade history class, where another teacher came in the class and said something about a plane hitting the top of the Twin Towers; no one thought much of it, thinking it had to be some sort of freak accident with a small plane.

It wasn’t until another plane was hijacked that some sense of the exception situation sunk in, and I have to imagine everyone involved knew what was happening once that second plane took its course at downtown Manhattan. Nine years later, I still felt a twinge of dread watching it fly towards its final destination in the middle of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. It was something I didn’t see live. In fact, I didn’t know anything past the initial accident until I walked into my English class and my bit-of-a-hardass, middle-aged female teacher was visibly upset. I remember her trying her best not to cry — but failing miserably — while informing us the Twin Towers were gone. Totally gone.

But what I didn’t know at the point, and not until I got home at the very earliest, was that one flight had been stopped from reaching its intended target. It was a small victory on a tragic day, and United 93 chronicles it soberly and beautifully. The people on that flight didn’t want to die, but they knew — from being relayed information about the attacks through loved ones — that they were on a suicide missile. While most of the events on the plane probably had to be imagined, and it was a bit comical to have the one appeaser on the flight not be American (and unfair to the memory of the man who the character is based on), there’s nothing that stands out as unbelievable.

I don’t think any of the people on the flight would have characterized their actions as especially brave; they undoubtedly saw storming the cockpit as their only course of action, much like the New York City firemen who sacrificed their lives in the Twin Towers. But they were brave, and in their final moments, these regular people became heroes that deserved to be remembered as they are portrayed in this film.

No related posts.