It’s difficult to be objective about a film like United 93, considering it’s the first film to present an account of the tragedy that was September 11, 2001. I remember seeing the first teaser trailer for it at the end of 2005 (back when it was called Flight 93) and immediately thinking about how the public would react to it. One of the greatest public concerns was that, because it was made only six years after the attacks, emotions would still be too raw to allow anyone to focus on anything other than the pain and frustration. I have to admit that I was one of those people. Why would anyone want to capitalize on a national catastrophe so soon afterwards? But then the film was released, and I listened to a lot of the reviews, which have certainly been more than favorable. And rightly so. This is not just a movie; it’s a horrific reminder of the sorrow that befell America that dark September morning, and in my opinion, it should be required viewing for all of humanity.
When it comes to a film like this, it’s not a matter of liking it or of finding it entertaining. If it were made with those goals in mind, it would be one of the most offensive, insulting things to ever smear itself on the silver screen. What does matter is whether or not it’s an important movie, made to present the facts in an appropriate and informative way. United 93 definitely delivers in that regard. Nothing is extraneous or melodramatic; it’s almost like a documentary in that it’s an accurate unfolding of moments that most people have not had the chance to learn about. On top of that, it’s so touching that it absolutely guarantees some kind of reaction (loud, soft, or silent). I say this in regard to everyone, not just to the victims’ family and friends. Unless you have ice water in your veins, you’ll find this to be profoundly moving, especially when the passengers make their last phone calls.
Paul Greengrass took the awesome responsibility of writing and directing this film, no small task considering the potential repercussions from the American public. He went as far as to personally appeal to the family members of the ill-fated United 93 passengers, something that took a great deal of courage and determination on his part. I can’t say if they all agreed to this film being made, but apparently enough of a consensus was reached. They must have known that he wouldn’t make something that exploited their loved ones’ deaths; rather, he would respectfully present their final moments in honest, straightforward terms. He opted to not focus on the background stories of the passengers or hijackers (the latter of which I couldn’t help but feel sorry for; they were brainwashed to believe that murdering innocent people was the only solution). The best we’re given are little snippets of overheard conversations, ones that seem completely unscripted and make use of everyday language. Nothing anyone says in this film seems contrived, and for that we have more than Greengrass to thank; we also have to thank the actors for their realistic portrayals.
The air traffic controllers eventually have to figure out exactly what’s going on in the skies above. Every moment of those scenes is hectic, emotional, and filled with frustration. Things only get worse when the military gets involved, especially since a lot of the information they receive is chaotic and conflicting. When the first plane crashes into the World Trade Center, they scramble like mad to determine whether or not it was American Airlines flight 11, and by the end of the film they still don’t know for sure. Some reports said that it was still in the air despite disappearing from the radar screen. By the time military action is decided on, another host of problems occur, not the least of which were the unequipped fighter jets and the inability to get hold of the President. They were thoroughly authentic scenes, made even better by the fact that many of the air traffic controllers working that day were cast to play themselves.
I don’t think it matters anymore if United 93 was released too soon. Even before its release, some cities were forced to pull the trailer from theaters because it was still enough of a reminder. Now that it has been released, many in all likelihood will come away feeling angry, bitter, and remorseful. Of course this movie is a downer, but it’s an important downer, bringing to light the story of the airplane passengers who tried but ultimately failed to take control of their hijacked flight on September 11, 2001. Everything from the casting of unknown actors to the editing all came together beautifully, and the end result is something truly powerful. It’s good to know that the first movie about 9/11 was carefully and respectfully crafted. I honestly believe that years from now, people will remember this movie just as much as they remember that awful day in 2001, when so many lives were tragically cut short.
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