The theater where I first saw United 93 was almost completely empty. It was one of the bigger stadiums in Manhattan’s Village East, and some friends accompanied me, including a filmmaker who works with UCB. We had all gotten up early to see the movie; I had sadly missed the screening during that year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The feeling was more like I was getting something done that was more of a requirement than a privilege or a choice. I don’t believe this feeling was unique to me or the group I was seeing this with. Nobody was truly excited about watching this.
That’s actually surprising, because I was (and remain) a tremendous fan of the director, Paul Greengrass, who is one of the few filmmakers who has mastered the hand-held aesthetic of immediacy and you-are-there realism. His work with the Bourne films is perhaps the most influential work in the action genre in some two decades, and Bloody Sunday, his second film, is still one of the best films of 2002. Mind you, that’s ignoring major works like Captain Phillips and Green Zone, both of which expertly balance the process of highly skilled governmental and corporate work with flashes of wild, uncontainable emotions. If you did want to see a movie about the passengers that staged a coup on flight United 93 on the morning of September 11th, 2001, Greengrass would be towards the top of the shortlist of people you’d want to see the project through to the tragic end.
But did anyone want this movie to happen? Did it matter if the subject material was in some of the absolute best hands in the business? My initial thought was a strong “no,” and to a degree, my feeling is that it was still the wrong decision for everyone involved. However, if the movie was going to be made, I was going to see it. How could you not? Not in terms of spectacle, but the sheer audacity of trying to create a resonant experience out of such a depiction. Days after seeing the film, I got into one of those knock-down-drag-out debates with an old friend on Facebook around 2 a.m. about the seeming heartlessness or perceivable opportunism of the project. He was angry, and not without reason, but hating a movie you haven’t seen is like loving someone you’ve never spoken to.
So, sitting in that theater, passively paying attention to trailers and advertisements, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was certain that this wasn’t going to be pleasant in any meaning of the word. As one might expect, due to the director or the subject matter, the movie begins silently, faintly preceding the sound and the image of a young man praying to Allah in a hotel room, who we realize eventually is Ziad Jarrah (Khalid Abdalla). It’s not long after that when we meet the other hijackers, Saeed Al Ghamdi, Ahmed Al Haznawi, and Ahmed Al Nami, played by Lewis Alsamari, Omar Berdouni, and Jamie Harding. The next time we see them is arriving at Newark International Airport, boarding United Airlines Flight 93 to San Francisco.
The hijackers are both written and performed in a sobering style, measured to the point of being characters of strict action. In a sense, this is a respectful decision, not wanting to clutter such a tragic chapter in American history with anything that could be construed as frivolous or false. Indeed, United 93 is nothing if not convincing, but one does have to wonder if the film would have played better with a fictional supposition, if the burden of fidelity here doesn’t limit the film’s allusions to matters of faith, strategy, and process. The film doesn’t consider these ideas in any pointed sense, but this is a trade for the film’s bracing experiential pulse, the emotional build of dread leading to the exasperating, devastating climax.
There is a not entirely unconvincing argument that Greengrass, intentionally or not, allows a hugely complex and historically dense occurrence to be boiled down to the stuff of a Wesley Snipes film, though clearly more technically impressive and direct. The fact that the hijackers are presented as quiet, dutiful, and not underlined by any great cruelty or sadism makes the film feel vaguely challenging in its seeming objectivity, but that does not necessarily allude to wisdom or remarkable intellect.
That being said, the film never feels particularly distant or emotionally reserved, and the passengers of the flight do not come off simply as types. In the time we spend with the passengers, from Jane Folger (Susan Blommaert) and Jeremy Glick (Peter Hermann) to Mark Bingham (Cheyenne Jackson) and Sandra Bradshaw (Trish Gates), we get an immediate sense of whose these people are, if not exactly the full extent of their livelihood. Maybe it’s the familiarity of these performers, many of whom have appeared in 30 Rock and Law & Order, but there is an unmistakable concern about who these people were and where they came from imbued into the action and dialogue.
The film cuts between the happenings on the plane and the chaos on the ground, flipping between different federal, national, and state agencies, and their employees, that are tracking that morning’s numerous attacks. Like the far superior Zero Dark Thirty, much of the dialogue focuses on the oft-muddled difference between facts and suppositions, emotions and knowledge, and that also typifies the divide between the actions on the plane and those in these various hubs. The brave, incalculable decisions made by the passengers is done through emotions, inclinations, and something like gut reactions to man a last-chance effort to stop the actions on United 93, whereas the well-meaning, professional men and women of the governmental agencies get tied up in the convoluted mess of bureaucratic procedures. This is not to say, however, that Greengrass demonizes or openly criticizes what the government was required to do. In fact, he portrays each agency as unerringly professional and empathetic in their duties.
The balance between the need for immediate reaction and regulated planning is mirrored in Greengrass’ use of performers both professional and unprofessional. Major characters actors like Olivia Thirlby and David Rasche get a small bit of screen time, whereas Ben Sliney, Tobin Miller, and Shawna Fox, amongst several others, are at the center of several scenes, playing themselves. This loamy mixture of deliveries, gesticulations, and tones are crucial to United 93’s essential humanity, and gives the film something like a thematic backbone to balance the unbearable tragedy of the events.
Towards the end of the film, Greengrass stays in the plane to witness the quick planning and implementation of the taking of the cockpit. We stay with the violent last moments of the passengers until the plane collides with the ground, which prompts the director to cut to black. Leaving the theater, my heart was still racing and I had no wanting to speak with anyone; neither my friends nor the friendly cashier who took my money for a bottle of water. At that moment, I still didn’t know if I was grateful for or even impressed by what I had seen and when I rewatched the film to prepare to write this, I realized I’m still not exactly sure what I got out of Greengrass’ film. It’s effective and affecting to be sure, but there’s still a nagging feeling that attempting to depict and recreate the heroism and horrible end of what happened on United Airlines Flight 93 was perhaps not thoroughly thoughtful. Greengrass’s film feels at once like a brave feat and a kind of terrible misstep, if only in that it offers a quick kind of catharsis for a feeling that remains tense and alive in the pit of my stomach, as well as the stomachs of uncountable others.