Back on September 11, 2001, as the day’s horrific images were flashed before us at various speeds and from ever more angles, until they became less like life and more like impressionistic collages of sunburst and charcoal, even the most pragmatic among us could scarcely refrain from commenting how much it was all “just like a movie.” But what kind of movie exactly? Perhaps a disaster epic à la Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay, in which spectacles of mass carnage, be they real (the bombing of Pearl Harbor) or invented (fiery asteroids raining down on the streets of Manhattan) are routinely served up for our viewing “pleasure”? Or, if not that, maybe one of those ersatz humanist homilies like Hotel Rwanda, in which some great and terrible act of annihilation is reconstituted as inspirational uplift? Well, now there is a September 11 movie, and it is thankfully neither of those things, nor quite like anything anyone likely imagined it would be. Writer-director Paul Greengrass’ United 93 is nothing short of a direct refutation of all the conventional Hollywood wisdom concerning how such a movie should be made.
The story is already the stuff of modern mythos: how the 44 passengers and crew aboard United Airlines flight 93 struggled with hijackers to regain control of their aircraft — the only one of the four hijacked planes that failed to reach its intended target. But Greengrass refuses to treat it as such. Here you will find no rah-rah heroes who stride gallantly into frame when the going gets tough. No storybook romance has been grafted on to appease the Titanic crowd. And though the press notes for United 93 are thick with biographies of the ill-fated men and women who perished upon impact in that field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the movie itself assiduously avoids individualizing its characters. We don’t even learn most of their names. That aversion to martyrdom may be mistaken for insensitivity on the part of Greengrass, who is British and whom some will see as standing at a distance from September 11 of which no red-blooded American would be capable. But Greengrass’ whole point is that there’s nothing special about the victims of flight 93. Like the innocent bystanders whose lives were lost in the events depicted by Greengrass’ earlier Bloody Sunday (about the massacre of 13 civil-rights demonstrators in Londonderry, Northern Ireland) and Omagh (about a 1998 terror bombing by dissident IRA members), they are simply ordinary people trying to get from one place to another. Husbands and wives. Parents and children. They could just as soon be us.
It is the highest compliment I can pay Greengrass to say that he is a master of the mundane, the routine and the everyday. When he makes a movie about a historical event, he spends as much time showing us the buildup to that event as he does depicting the event itself. He’s fascinated by the gradual convergence of disparate people on a single point in time that then becomes immortalized by tragedy, and what interests him most is the randomness of it all — the way one minute life is just rolling along the way it always does and then, suddenly, it isn’t. In United 93, that means lots of screen time devoted to planes being fueled and stocked with supplies; air and ground crews arriving to work on a Monday morning; passengers waiting idly at the gate, sending e-mails, making phone calls. We see several Arab men pass through the Newark airport’s security checkpoint without so much as a suspicious eyebrow raised — a reminder that there was such a moment in America’s not-too-distant past. And even once we are onboard flight 93, there are safety instructions to be disseminated, meal orders to be taken and ground delays to be waited out.
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The movie unfolds in more or less real time, with the actual hijacking not coming until nearly an hour into the picture, and it’s easy to think that the whole thing would have proved fatally boring were it not for our foreknowledge of things to come. But Greengrass is well above mining cheap suspense effects from our queasy anticipation. Even were a viewer, should such a viewer exist, to happen upon the film unaware of what was going to happen, he might still be held rapt by Greengrass’ obsessive minutiae — this is unquestionably the most realistic airplane movie ever made — and his transfiguration of the mundane into the unexpectedly poetic. At a time when movies can’t stop themselves from striving to top each other’s son et lumière chaos, it’s hardly the least of United 93’s achievements that it refuses to allow so much as a whiff of spectacle to enter the screen. It is a movie exhilarating in its spareness.
Allow me to go one step further: United 93 is only incidentally about a hijacking, and not at all about terrorism. Its true subject is that rarest of movie concerns — work — and like the Scottish director Ken Loach, Greengrass doesn’t just show folks going about their daily business, he exalts them. It’s there in the way he films the full, uninterrupted action of a ground crew member closing the cabin door and bidding flight 93 adieu, and it’s there most of all in the hivelike atmosphere of the FAA’s Virginia-based command center, which plays itself in the film, as does its silver-haired operations manager Ben Sliney, whose first day on the job just happened to be September 11, 2001. In sharp, crystalline details, Greengrass captures the organized chaos that is the world of air travel and air traffic control — and that’s on a good day. Then crisis erupts, and both on the ground and in the air the response is less one of abject panic than of terror marbled with incredulity: “A hijacking? There hasn’t been one of those in 20 years!”
Like Bloody Sunday and Greengrass’ recent Hollywood foray, The Bourne Supremacy, United 93 is an astounding piece of movie craftsmanship, filmed inside a real Boeing 757 — disassembled and rebuilt on the stages of London’s Pinewood Studios — with multiple handheld cameras in long, uninterrupted takes. But technical matters aside, it’s nearly impossible to talk about United 93 in the critical terms that get applied to most movies. The dialogue, largely worked out improvisationally by Greengrass and the cast during a long rehearsal process, consists mostly of chitchat between passengers and crew, the occasional terse exchange between hijackers as they prepare to commandeer the plane and lots of coded jargon spouted by military and aviation officials. (We learn, for example, that a hijacking is known as a “code 7500.”) The actors — almost all of them unfamiliar character actors or nonprofessionals (including several, like Sliney, cast as themselves) — are exceptional only for their lack of exception, their sublime un-actorliness. And if United 93 is a political film, it is one by virtue of omission, by Greengrass’ unwavering refusal to cast the events of September 11 — as so many others have — in convenient terms of good and evil, heroism and cowardice. Rather, as the filmhurtles toward its inevitable conclusion and those aboard flight 93 prepare to take their fateful actions, Greengrass shows us people stripped to their very core, to their elemental survival instinct. In doing so, he restores something that is all too often lost in the transmission of moving pictures, be they those of a Hollywood movie or of the evening news: the felt value of a single human life.
UNITED 93 | Written and directed by PAUL GREENGRASS | Produced by TIM BEVAN, ERIC FELLNER, LLOYD LEVIN and GREENGRASS | Released by Universal | Citywide