6. UNITED 93 (2006)
It has been 13 years since the September 11th attacks and people are still quite touchy about the subject especially in the US. United 93 was released in 2006, only 5 years after the attacks. That may seem too soon but it’s not. United 93 could have been released anytime after the attacks because the film brings us into the flight in present tense as if we don’t know what happened afterwards. There is no mention of Al Qaeda, no mention of Osama bin Laden or Iraq or Afghanistan. We only see the events as they unfold. This is a heartbreaking film that is very hard to watch but it does honor the memory of the victims.
The film discusses one of the four planes hijacked, United Airlines Flight 93. This plane was special because it was the only one where the passengers fought back and the only one that didn’t make it to its target. The film’s script is assembled from the limited recorded discussions from the cockpit and the various phone calls made. Paul Greengrass did a great job of making the dialogue seem perfectly genuine.
Another great decision made by writer and director Paul Greengrass is to cast no-name actors. Just imagine Brad Pitt or Sandra Bullock in a movie about 9/11, it won’t seem right. Paul Greengrass is famous for casting lesser-known actors (with the exception of Matt Damon in the second and third Bourne movies, and Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips). This gives the film an almost authentic feeling as if we are watching normal people going through a tough situation. There is no single hero in United 93 and there is no time for character development. We know as little about these characters as they do about each other. The famous line “Let’s roll” from the actual United Airlines Flight 93 is not emphasized as a one-liner but rather as a normal piece of dialogue. Paul Greengrass did a fantastic job at not Hollywoodizing United 93. Many other directors would have. Also, the Muslim terrorists were not portrayed as plain, evil pieces of crap but rather people who are fighting for what they believe in, even if the way they are fighting for it is wrong.
United 93 is a straight up thriller. But it isn’t a crappy thriller because of Paul Greengrass’ directing. Paul Greengrass is an extremely talented director when it comes to building tension. His two Bourne movies are basically a bunch of chase sequences stitched together but it works because the editing is fantastic, the same as United 93. During the second act of the film, when the hijacking begins, the intensity really starts to build up. The film then starts to constantly cut between the plane, the military, the news broadcasts of the twin towers collapsing and the air traffic control center, and all of this is so well edited that it begins to feel like one cohesive piece. Towards the end of the film, the film begins to focus only on the plane and Greengrass makes a wise decision to never show the outside of the plane when all of the actions are happening. We are stuck inside the plane with these passengers, giving the film a claustrophobic feel. The editing pace increases more and more as we get closer to the fate of everybody on board. I have never bitten my nails more than while watching the ending of United 93. It has kind of become hard to breathe, probably just like how those passengers felt.
Paul Greengrass uses his typical shaky camera cinematography in United 93. Shaky cam has started to become an annoying gimmick in a lot of action movies and thrillers, usually when the action is so bad that the director needs to hide it by shaking the camera around. Alex Cross and the first Hunger Games movie both suffer from this. Paul Greengrass is the only director who can use shaky cam in an artful way to build tension. I think he used it best in United 93 because the shaking camera gives us a feeling of unbalance just like on an actual airplane and we feel like we are out of control of the situation, just like the passengers on the plane. All of these editing and cinematography techniques help build one of the most anxious films ever.
United 93 does not shy away from the true grittiness of the September 11th attacks but does not exploit anything. We know how these events end from the very beginning of the film but we get so immersed into the situation that the ending is still quite alarming. Some might find the film disturbing and hard to finish. The film’s point of view is very passive towards the situation. It doesn’t draw conclusions, it doesn’t blame anyone and it doesn’t spend time for any pointless “personal dramas”. The film only observes as the events unfold and as they progressively get worst. The film’s point of view reminds of Mary at Jesus’ crucifixion. She observed Jesus’ death and was deeply saddened by it, but she could not do much about it.