May 4, 2006

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United 93 (R)
Writer and director Paul Greengrass captures the flight of the last plane hijacked on Sept. 11 in United 93, a tense, stunning reenactment that offers solid filmmaking and great storytelling with a perfect unadorned, stripped-down feel.

No stars (thank god), few cinematic tight shots, minimal music -- Greengrass wisely took a just-the-facts approach to his guesstimation of what happened on that flight.

The film begins -- starkly and with no underlying score -- with the terrorists in their hotels and preparing for their flights. We then shift to the airport and to various air traffic control centers and to the military's Northeast Air Defense Sector. The morning on the east coast is, as we know, ominously beautiful and the opening scenes are of the sort of boring stuff that fills the beginning of any work or travel day. Though the movie contains the real-time 88 minutes of the flight of United 93, the first half hour or so takes place before the plane (which is briefly delayed) takes off. (United 93 takes off after, in the film's timeline, the first reports of a possible hijacking of American Airlines flight 11.)

The first half of the movie is predominately with the air traffic officials and with the military. After American 11 is confirmed a hijacking, it takes what feels like an absurdly long time for a general warning about the situation to go out. When the CNN reports of the World Trade Center having been hit come in to the air control personnel, they are at first disbelieving that their missing plane and the enormous fire are related. The movie shows the varying agencies, now receiving other possible hijacking reports, watch helplessly as a plane flies in to the second tower. Even as that happens and it becomes clear that some sort of attack is underway, things move maddeningly slowly. Military and civilian air traffic personnel seem unable to communicate. The military officials monitoring the situation have only four planes (two of them unarmed) with which to stave off additional attacks and no one can seem to locate either the president or the vice president, who are needed to give approval for a military jet to fire on a civilian plane. There is even a scene where officials briefly second guess an FAA decision to ground all air traffic (the concern -- that it will cost the airline industry millions).

Then we return to United 93, where hijacked passengers seem to put the pieces together faster than the officials on the ground. After being herded to the back of the plane, they make phone calls -- to operators, to loved ones -- and put together that they aren't being held for ransom and that they likely won't make it back to the ground. They don't give stirring speeches (again, thank god) and they don't get cloyingly patriotic. We've gotta do something, they say to each other as matter-of-fact statements illuminating the best plan for the survival of, if not them, the largest number of other people. The movie ends with their rush on the terrorists and eventually their breaching the cockpit.

The best measure of how well done this film is might be the use of the line “let's roll,” one of the oft-quoted last words of a passenger just before the group decided to storm the cockpit. It was repeated in the days after Sept. 11 as a here-we-come message of defiance to, well, whomever and it could have been used here with Bruce-Willis-like catchphrase hamminess. But instead, it comes as part of the dialogue, it's one of many urgent sentences uttered by people who, heretofore average joes, were about to do something heroic and, they all pretty much knew, fatal. No fanfare, no Jerry Bruckheimer flash -- just a shaky-cam and a lot of worried faces giving us a look at a momentous and very impressive action.

The movie feels like a documentary -- a statement I heard many times in press coverage of this film (I normally try to avoid any pre-movie press but with United 93 it was unavoidable). This is true, though not because the film gets teachy on you or has any talking-to-the-camera moments. What we are seeing, we feel, are simply the events. We don't get any inner life of anyone (not the terrorists nor the passengers, even when we hear their anguished final messages left on voice mail to loved ones), we don't get conventional character development.

Which is not to say the movie is unemotional -- the facts create their own emotion, and more poignantly than any storytelling device could. Even though you know it is coming, it is a punch in the gut to see the Twin Towers being attacked and burning. It is chilling (literally, I felt colder and might have even shuddered) to see the smoke rising from the direction of the Pentagon exactly as I saw it covered on that very same CNN coverage on Sept. 11. It is wrenching to hear the passengers call their families. And it is truly terrifying, not to mention a bit angering, to watch the assorted agencies fumble at the beginning of the disaster and to sense that not enough has changed since then.

So, should you see it? This is the question posed by and to many people who watch the film industry. The film opened at number two in box office tallies but with a relatively small (about $12 million) take. Yes, it is an unpleasant experience and yes, it is a good movie. It is probably worth seeing for historical reasons as well as artistic ones. And then there is the question of the war -- the one that has been vaguely defined and included, so far, military action in Afghanistan and Iraq and less dramatic, more covert actions of all sorts all over the world. Officials have told us that the Global War Against Terror will not have an end, a V-J day. For such an odd kind of war, United 93 is an example of an odd, rare kind of victory. A


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