United 93 (2006)
Starring: JJ Johnson, Polly Adams, Cheyenne Jackson, Opal Alladin, Starla Benford, Trish Gates, Nancy McDoniel, David Alan Basche
Directed by: Paul Greengrass
When this first came out, I really wasn’t interested in seeing it, even after it got near universal praise. Hey, Bush got near universal praise after 9/11, didn’t mean that people were right then. Like others, I thought it was too soon for such a movie, albeit for different reasons than most.
Others may have thought it too soon as it feels exploitative to make entertainment based on a five-year-old tragedy, while people are still dealing with the pain associated with the event. I understand this reaction, but think that art can serve a greater purpose, even if it makes people uncomfortable. My problem with making movies about September 11th this soon is that we simply haven’t had the necessary time to understand what truly happened, and lack the perspective to understand it. Imagine what a 9/11 film would’ve looked like one year after the attack when very few in the media would consider criticising the administration and you’ll understand what perspective can do to looks at history.
Luckily, director Paul Greengrass succeeds at addressing both concerns with his movie. Yes, using a national and personal tragedy for entertainment is exploitative, but this isn’t a mere entertainment, this is art. More importantly, he avoids the question of perspective by keeping the movie apolitical. United 93 isn’t concerned with the hows and whys of the attacks, but instead focuses on the passengers of the flight destined to crash into Washington, but ended up crashing into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all 44 passengers aboard, along with the reactions of the air traffic controllers and military personnel on the ground attempting to deal with the crisis as it happens.
As a result, Greengrass created one of the most tense, harrowing, and stark depictions on film I’ve ever seen. The movie is deeply affecting, in-the-moment filmmaking that managed to stir similar feelings in me as those I felt five years ago watching the events unfold on CNN. Throughout the movie, my body was numb with chills and my stomach churned, speaking to the power of the filmmaking, which delivers its affects without resorting to cheap manipulation tactics, devoid of theatrics or swooping scores.
The intensity of the movie is unlike anything I’ve seen, captured in a cinéma vérité style, employing hand-held cameras, little-known actors (and, in some cases, the actual people involved for scenes on the ground), and improvised dialogue to deliver a raw, unvarnished attempt to document what happened on the doomed flight. The entire thing is a raw nerve, a visceral, unflinching look at what happened that day as best as the historical record has to tell us, finishing off with a final scene that is as impactful and memorable as any scene in any movie all year.
Like the best art, United 93 is challenging, difficult, and compelling. It offers no answers, no resolution, and no release. But it is a haunting reminder of what happened that day, and more importantly, what it felt like to live through that day, a reminder that is more necessary than one might imagine, as our feelings of the situation have been numbed and hardened after years of exploitation of the event by our media, corporations, and politicians. It is an extremely difficult movie to watch, but one well worth the effort, and one that will stay with you long after the movie is over. Quite possibly the best movie of the year.