Movie review: United 93

A gripping film that focuses on the hostages in the plane that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania on 9/11.

united 93  88 (photo credit: )
united 93 88
(photo credit: )
Four Stars Directed and written by Paul Greengrass. Hebrew title: Tisa 93. In English and Arabic, with Hebrew titles. 111 minutes. Rated R for language and some intense scenes of terror and violence. There can be no more fitting tribute to the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks than United 93, a gripping film that focuses on the hostages in the plane that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania - the only one of the four hijacked planes not to reach its target. Filmed in real time, the movie shows the passengers boarding the plane, settling in calmly, then suddenly shifting gears as four men hijack the aircraft. In the chaos that followed the hijacking, passengers were able to communicate via cell phone with their families, and learned that two other hijacked planes had hit the World Trade Center while a third had crashed into the Pentagon. Knowing that their hijackers were on a suicide mission (they planned to fly United 93 into the Capitol Building), the passengers banded together, staged a revolt and attempted to overcome the hijackers and take control of the plane. While everyone aboard was killed in the subsequent crash, they were able to thwart the hijackers' mission. United 93, which intersperses action on the plane with scenes of the various air traffic control rooms across the country tracking the hijacked aircraft, has the intensity and immediacy of a documentary. Its great success is in holding our interest, even though the viewer already knows the tragic ending. The result is a gem of a movie that, despite its complete lack of sermonizing, makes us feel the humanity of those killed and spotlights the evil nature of those who carried out the murderous mission. We don't get the backstories of any of the passengers (or hijackers), and this is part of what makes the film work so well. United 93 opens with the flight's hijackers in a Boston hotel room, reading from the Koran and praying. They don't make any speeches about wanting to destroy the infidels or how their people have suffered. They simply finish praying, hide the box cutters they later use to kill and injure several passengers, pick up their luggage and head for the airport. We see all the passengers on the flight in the most banal moments of airport routine - checking in, sitting in the departure lounge by the gate, chatting on their cell phones, dozing and reading. The hijackers, looking just the slightest bit tense, sit among them unnoticed. They board the plane, and the bland ritual of airline travel continues. Any viewer can picture himself sitting among these passengers, skimming the newspaper, becoming impatient over a delay in taking off, waiting for a not-very-appetizing breakfast to be served. We know no more about them than we would if we were sitting next to them on the plane. Movies about disasters or tragedies usually create stock characters by heightening reality, but director Paul Greengrass wisely chose not to do that. In a conventional film about an event like this, for example, we'd learn that one man was trying to get home for his son's birthday, or that another was visiting his mother who was dying of cancer. Here, there is none of that. This makes the final act of heroism all the more real and horrifying. The intensity here comes from the details, as innocuous as most of them are. Nothing can capture the evil of modern-day terrorism more than hijackers who politely say, "No, thank you" to a flight attendant who offers them a beverage, knowing they will slit her throat in about a quarter of an hour. In the air traffic control rooms, we see how utterly unprepared the United States was for a series of attacks like this. The primary focus of the traffic controllers was simply to avoid plane crashes and minimize delays. It's hard for the control rooms to absorb the fact that four planes have been hijacked nearly simultaneously, and even more difficult for them to get a clear response from the military or the president. "Come on, there hasn't been a hijacking in - what? Twenty years?" says the head of one control room, who quickly shifts gears when he realizes what is happening. Although the script of United 93 doesn't editorialize, it makes it clear that the US military was taken by surprise and, since it had no plan in place, was unable to mount an adequate response. The film leaves you with the feeling that the attack on the Pentagon, at least, could easily have been prevented had the military been more decisive. The film's documentary feel works beautifully throughout. Part of this is due to Greengrass's decision to use only unknown actors. A number of key roles are played by the real air traffic controllers. The actors are completely fresh to us, and we don't bring any of the associations we would with movie stars that would distance us from the events on screen. This is one of several reasons that United 93 is a better film than Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, which has yet to be released in Israel. That film stars Nicolas Cage as a Port Authority cop trapped in the rubble of the World Trade Center. Stone's is also a far more conventional and, consequently, less affecting narrative, as the trapped cops speak to each other about their love for their wives and kids, while their spouses watch CNN and fret that the last words they said to their husbands weren't loving enough. In both films, the outcome is a foregone conclusion, but Greengrass creates an immediacy that is lacking in Stone's lumbering, dull and solemn film. Greengrass, who has a background in documentary filmmaking and is best known for his look at the Irish conflict in Bloody Sunday, worked with relatives of the victims to piece together what might have gone on aboard the flight (many of the victims did manage to convey to their loved ones what was happening ). Again, there is no glorifying of the passengers who organized the revolt, which could not save their lives but which saved the lives of many in Washington, DC. They simply seem more confident and realistic than the other passengers. In the US, there has been a debate following the release of United 93 and World Trade Center over whether it is too soon to make movies about the events of September 11, 2001. I know of no such argument in Israel, nor do I expect one. The US debate stems from an assumption that 9/11 was essentially an isolated event, one that will never be repeated and that must be memorialized or referred to with kid gloves because of its uniqueness. Here, we have no such illusions about terrorism. On the way to the United 93 screening at the Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv, I was checked by security no less than three times (at the parking lot entrance, the mall entrance and the theater entrance). I can't imagine any such security right now on the way to a US screening. Waiting for the movie to begin, I overheard a discussion about the Iranian nuclear threat and knew that if the Iranians were ever to make a nuclear strike on Israel, the Azrieli Center, located up the street from the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, would certainly be Ground Zero. But as I watched United 93, I was so caught up in it that I forgot all about the Iranian nukes and kept wondering what the passengers would or should do next. The movie is simply so intense, it's hard to think about anything else while you're watching it. It's a difficult and upsetting experience but a worthwhile one, which will linger in your mind long after the film ends.