United 93 Review


Perfectly capturing the chaos of the defining moment of my generation, “United 93” is not about the events of September 11, 2001 per se. Instead, it celebrates the human spirit. It’s a phenomenal achievement, a film of unparalleled power and emotion. I named the film my favorite from the last decade. A subsequent viewing told me I made the absolute right choice.

The film is divided into two equally excellent segments. The first focuses on the air traffic controllers and military personnel on the ground. We follow them from the moment they start work to the time they first find out a plane might have been hijacked and the time they see the second plane hit the World Trade Center. It’s the first day in a new position for Ben Sliney (playing himself), and it’s pure anarchy. But he handles things the best way he can, including making the incredibly tough (and expensive) decision to ground all flights until further notice. Things are even more hectic at NORAD, where commanders are trying to get authority to engage the hijacked planes, but nobody seems to know who’s in charge.

The second segment shifts its focus to the passengers aboard the doomed flight from Newark to San Francisco. We are given small glimpses into the early part of the flight in order to stress the seemingly ordinary nature of it. Soon, things drastically change when four men take control of the airplane. They stab one passenger and hold a stewardess at knife point. She lets them into the cockpit, and the pilots are murdered. The rest of the passengers are shepherded to the back of the plane. When they realize they aren’t going back to the airport, they hatch a plan to stop the terrorists and hopefully save their own lives.

When “United 93” came out in April 2006, many said it was too soon. How could we relive one of our darkest days when we still hadn’t really come to terms with what happened? And there was the possibility of the film being exploitative, using real people’s suffering to make money. However, those who thought it was too soon didn’t realize the film was in the hands of an absolute master director. I can’t say enough about Paul Greengrass’ directorial work other than I think this film is one of the best directed films I’ve ever seen. He never crosses the line of being exploitative or too manipulative, and he is able to put you right in the middle of the action so you can observe for yourself the bedlam of the day and the heroism at work. The fact that we know the outcome of the story does not in any way detract from the suspense of it all, for the “you-are-there” approach brings a whole new layer to a story we all know.

The film also feels incredibly authentic. Part of this is because many of the on-the-ground people are playing themselves (not an easy task I would imagine). Also, the film avoids unnecessary character development. We know next to nothing about any of these people, but we don’t need to; the story is bigger than any character could be (a mistake, in my opinion, made by Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” from later in 2006).

Oscar didn’t take much notice of “United 93.” The major awards went to “The Departed” (a decision I had no problem with). Greengrass got a surprising Best Director nomination, and the Academy also recognized the film’s terrific editing, but neither took home an award that night.

Undoubtedly, future filmmakers who attempt to make a 9/11 film will try to capture the same kind of power. If they follow the Greengrass model of avoiding exploitation, championing authenticity, and keeping the scope of the day in focus, their films should be, to some degree, a success. But I can’t imagine any film doing as good a job or having the same impact as “United 93.” The wounds from that awful day had barely healed, but instead of ripping them open, this film is a fitting tribute to all those who lost their lives.

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