Paul Greengrass has accomplished something quite extraordinary with United 93; as I watched the film, my heart was beating, my pulse was rising, and I thought to myself, ‘I didn’t know a movie could stir so much emotion’. Not emotion of gung-ho bravado or jingoistic ‘let’s go America, beat those terrorists’ ideals, but of pure, unadulterated dread, terror, and horror, of watching planes crash into the World Trade Center and – regardless of your personal beliefs – realizing now the true gravity of that day, reliving it with a new perspective, your stomach turning, your temperature rising. This is the most terrifying movie I have ever seen.
The story needs no description. The film starts off with the mundane: passengers wait for their plane in an airport lounge, FAA officials gather for a meeting, air traffic controllers track flights, military personnel prepare for an exercise. We come into these scenes with a sense of dread; we know what is going to happen. Soon, a plane goes missing. A possible hijacking. The dread starts to build. An ‘explosion’ at the WTC – or a ‘small plane’ has flown into it. Confusion, horror. We watch the second plane fly into the WTC. There are still planes missing.
The bulk of the film consists of scenes of the air traffic controllers, military officials, technicians, and others (many of which are played by the actual people involved) reacting with confusion to the events that are unfolding. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times writes: “When the controllers in the LaGuardia tower see the second airplane crash into the World Trade Center, they recoil with shock and horror, and that moment in the film seems as real as it seemed to me on Sept. 11, 2001.”
To me, that moment (and much of the rest of the film) seemed even more real than it did on 9/11/01; Greengrass’ documentary style and five years of retrospection add a sense of gravity to witnessing the events that the news reports could never convey. The characters’ sense of confusion reminds me of my own when first learning of the attacks. Watching them meticulously reenacted five years later lends a whole new perspective.
Greengrass wisely stays away from name actors or recognizable faces. Ben Sliney, who arguably has the largest role in the film, was (I thought) incredibly convincing as the head of the FAA; I can’t say I was too surprised to learn that he actually was the FAA Director of Operations on 9/11. The rest of the cast is just as convincing; the only other actors I can be sure didn’t play themselves are the ones portraying people who were killed. But on board United 93 we are given no backstory or insight into the lives of its passengers – we know as little about them as we would if we were sitting next to them on the plane.
For all intents and purposes I accepted it as reality – not as an exact document of what happened, as a note at the end of the film reminds us that much of the story aboard the plane had to be extrapolated – but as the reality of the moment; I felt as if I were there. The only thing that didn’t ring true was the borderline-cliché European-accented character who wants to negotiate with the hijackers.
The third act of the film follows the flight of United 93 after the plane is hijacked by terrorists, one of which carrying an apparent bomb. The passengers slowly learn of the attacks on the WTC and the pentagon – as do the terrorists; I’ll never forget the look of joy on the face of Ziad Jarrah (played by Khalid Abdalla) when he learns of the attacks from air traffic control – “The brothers have reached their targets!” he exclaims with a cheerful humanity that is absent throughout the rest of the film.
The passengers start to devise a plan; the terrorists suspect an uprising. Throughout all of this the sense of dread and urgency becomes almost unbearable – we know where this is going and are given no hope, nothing to do but remain witnesses. Whether or not what unfolds is accurate is irrelevant; this is what we are experiencing now, and this is what we must endure. It’s difficult to watch, but impossible to look away.
Greengrass uses a handheld camera and an abundance of close-ups to create an ultra-documentary style that almost seems more real than most documentaries. He used the same technique with success in his breakthrough film, Bloody Sunday, as well as the Hollywood thriller The Bourne Supremacy; here he uses it to recreate the events of one of the most significant days in all of our lives.
I recommend the film without reservation, even though I know some will not be able to sit through it. Few will want to relive the events of 9/11, and that’s exactly what this film is. But the experience is also a window into ourselves, and a companion to our memories – a horrific reenactment of the event that has in one way or another affected our lives. Yes, it’s the most terrifying movie I’ve seen. It’s also one of the best.