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Saturday, April 29, 2006

United 93 reviewed

United 93 is one of the most powerful films I've ever seen, and a total triumph for writer-director Paul Greengrass and everyone else involved in its making.

All politics and subject matter aside, United 93 is nearly perfect as a film. The acting is uniformly naturalistic and pitch perfect, with standout performances from Patrick St. Esprit as Major Kevin Nasypany, an Air Force officer assigned to Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), and FAA National Operations Manager Ben Sliney as himself. (Anyone who thinks it's easy to play yourself - especially for a non-actor - doesn't understand how much the camera changes everything.) But all the actors perform admirably, and Greengrass' decision to not use easily recognizable faces in any of the roles pays off in a huge way. I can't imagine how bad a film this would have been with Brad Pitt as Beamer, Gene Hackman as Sliney, and Naveen Andrews and Tony Shalhoub as two of the hijackers.

For awhile I found it a bit frustrating that I never got the passengers' names straight or got a real feel for their personalities (I actually spent most of the movie thinking the wrong guy was Todd Beamer), but I suspect this was intentional on Greengrass' part. Not assigning identifiable characteristics to the passengers serves two purposes: first, it avoids the Hollywood cliches of "the funny one," "the brainy one," "the dumb but loveable one," etc. After all, this ain't Friends. Second, not knowing much about them in an odd way makes it easier to identify with them: they are Every Americans. None of them is Superman or Wonder Woman, they're just ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and we can imagine ourselves in their place. Also, since the film takes place in close to real time, the reality is that there really isn't much time for character development.

United 93 is technically flawless. Greengrass, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and a team of three editors combine to give the film its documentary feel. The use of handheld cameras is extremely effective at portraying the state of chaos that exists in air traffic control centers even when planes aren't being hijacked, and the camera is never in the wrong place during the close quarters filming of the scenes aboard Flight 93. John Powell's music is made more effective by its absence throughout most of the film: this is not a shot at his score, but a compliment to Greengrass' decision to let much of the movie proceed unaccompanied by anything other than occasional tension-building drumbeats. When Powell's music kicks in towards the end, the emotional effect is overwhelming to an extent it wouldn't have been if we had been hearing the same motifs throughout. Visual effects are seamless - there is never a moment when you don't believe you're on the plane, or in the control center.

The scenes inside the FAA's Command Center and regional control centers, along with those inside NORAD, are riveting and allow us to see professionals operating (mostly) at their best amidst their total confusion at what was happening. (There are several instances of characters disbelievingly saying that they couldn't even remember the last time a plane was hijacked.) Seeing the thousands of radar blips on multiple screens, each blip representing an airplane flying along the Northeast corridor that might have already been hijacked, makes you appreciate the immensity of the task faced by Sliney and his teams. Watching NORAD officers having to bypass the FAA and take matters into their own hands just to get a Combat Air Patrol flying over Manhattan, and at the same time struggling to have someone - anyone - in Washington tell them their rules of engagement, you feel some of the same frustration they felt on that day.

As the film proceeds inexorably towards its conclusion, the fact that we know how it ends does not in any way diminish the tension we feel. In actuality, knowing that there's no Hollywood ending for Flight 93's passengers makes it simultaneously nearly unbearable to watch and absolutely impossible to take your eyes off of. The last twenty minutes or so of the film take place entirely aboard the aircraft and are some of the tensest moments ever committed to celluoid, particularly once the decision is reached to storm the cockpit. And even though we know what to expect, the ending, when it finally comes, is shocking in its finality: I really happened, it says. There won't be any alternate endings on the DVD, no sequel in which characters you thought were dead come back to life. You can push me into the back of your mind if you want, you can do your best to forget me, you can look all you want for my root causes, but in the end, what remains is this: I really happened.

There are those who say it's "too soon" for United 93: I suspect they'd be saying the same thing if this were 2016. In my mind, it's too soon only if you want to forget. If you want to remember, if, as I do, you think we need to remember (and not in an abstract "I remember it was awful" way, but in a visceral "I remember what it felt like" way), then it's hard to imagine a better film than this. There's no Osama, no Afghanistan, no Iraq, no anything but what it was like to be an American on that day.

Greengrass has a brilliant quote in the press kit given out for the film, a quote that serves as a fine epitaph for those aboard United 93. He notes that the passengers on United 93 knew through phone calls to loved ones that two other aircraft had already hit the World Trade Center, and that this knowledge informed their decision to fight rather than allow their plane to be used in the same way. Because of this, he says,
They were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world.
For more commentary on United 93 click here and here.

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