Paul Greengrass’ United 93 comes to us with a fair amount of controversy surrounding its release, but the fuss, to me at least, has a certain ginned-up air about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that reports of viewers screaming “Too soon!” and theaters yanking the movie’s trailer had been exaggerated—or even invented entirely—by the Universal Pictures publicity machine.
There was certainly no such outcry last September when the Discovery Channel broadcast its docudrama The Flight That Fought Back, nor was A&E accused of exploiting the tragedy of 9/11 back in January, when it showed the TV movie Flight 93—even though that dramatization was punctuated with sales pitches for Office Depot and Burger King. In fact, no sooner was the United 93 “controversy” in the news than Universal, with almost suspicious promptness, brought out a second trailer with writer-director Greengrass solemnly testifying to the support the film has received from the surviving families of Flight 93’s passengers and crew.
So, pardon me if I take all the noise with a grain of salt. The main point is that, if the controversy was indeed a subtle publicity stunt, it was hardly necessary. United 93 is a powerful and stunning piece of filmmaking, the best movie so far this year.
Greengrass’ technique here is similar to the style he adopted for his equally impressive 2002 drama Bloody Sunday (about a 1972 civil-rights march in Northern Ireland that degenerated into a massacre, with British troops opening fire and killing 13 marchers). Greengrass begins United 93 with a quiet scene of the Al Qaeda hijackers reciting their morning prayers and then packing and leaving for the airport.
The movie has the feel of documentary footage, of headlong events caught on camera almost by accident. But Greengrass carefully constructs his story, beginning in a subdued, almost sleepy manner—with two devout Muslims quietly praying—and then gradually becoming more busy, more animated and, on one level at least, more confusing as we see the many characters moving toward what we know is about to happen. The flight crew reports and prepares for takeoff, passengers find their seats and settle in, and, elsewhere, air-traffic controllers in New York and Boston, and military personnel at the Northeast Air Defense Sector all report for what they think will be just another workday.
None of them know what’s coming, of course, but we do, and Greengrass builds an atmosphere of tightening dread, aided by John Powell’s sparse and simple yet ominously powerful score. When the controllers find themselves confronted with an apparent hijacking, they are at first bemused (why, it’s been 20 years since a hijacking), but then, as the mounting enormity begins to sink in, they and the military grapple as best they can with a situation they never expected and haven’t planned for.
By the time the hijackers on Flight 93 make their move, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center have already been hit, and the passengers begin to understand that they have been shanghaied onto a similar suicide mission.
United 93 uses no stars; the cast is a mix of professional actors and air controllers and military personnel playing themselves, doing what they did on that day. Some of the actors are familiar (one of them, David Rasche, also appears as the president in The Sentinel), but the very familiarity adds to the movie’s verisimilitude: We’re not sure if we recognize these faces from other movies or from pictures of the victims that appeared in the days after the attacks. And Greengrass doesn’t pad the action with neat little Hollywood back stories; we know no more about the passengers than they knew about each other on the last day of their lives.
Fears that Universal and Greengrass are exploiting September 11 are misplaced, even foolish. There’s no exploitation here—any more than Bloody Sunday “exploited” the events of January 30, 1972. There’s only a tribute to the terror and confusion of that terrible day and to the courage some of the participants—not all of them in the air—were able to muster in conditions that the rest of us, God willing, will never have to face.