"United 93" a Highly Fitting Memorial
- Thursday, September 07, 2006
DVD Release Date: September 5, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: April 28, 2006
Rating: R (for language and some intense sequences of terror and violence)
Run Time: 111 min.
Director: Paul Greengrass
Actors: Daniel Sauli, Lewis Alsamari, JJ Johnson, Gary Commock, Polly Adams (II)
“Would you like to watch ‘United 93’ with me,” I asked my children's 21-year-old babysitter, a liberal arts major at a small Southern university.
“What’s that about?” she said, to which she added, “Oh, I don’t think I want to see that,” after I explained the plot.
Although shocked at her naïveté, I nevertheless understand her trepidation. After all, I didn’t see this film when it released in theaters several months ago – and I found myself waiting until the last possible moment to screen the DVD. Unlike my babysitter, I remember 9/11 in painstaking detail, and it’s not an experience I want to relive. I am very glad, however, that I did.
When “United 93” was made, people questioned whether it was too soon. Others asked whether it was appropriate to even make a film about this tragedy. My babysitter – who was a high school junior on September 11, 2001 – showed me why films like this are, indeed, important. Fortunately, English director Paul Greengrass’s effort is exceptional on every level.
We all know the plot. On that fateful morning, Islamic terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes and attempted to steer them into buildings of significant national interest – the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and the Capitol. Three of those planes hit their targets. The fourth, United 93, did not. It crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after a group of passengers rushed the cockpit.
Unlike those on other flights, the passengers of United 93 knew what was happening. They were informed about the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks through cell phone calls back home – calls which quickly turned into goodbyes. Somehow, despite the chaos that reigned on the ground, however, these passengers instantly grasped what was at stake. And without technology, forethought or even a decent weapon, they managed to sabotage the well-planned efforts of a group bent on our destruction. This, perhaps more than anything, is what truly makes them heroes.
We don’t know all the details about United 93, but we know the outline of what happened, thanks to those telephone calls. For the rest, Greengrass (who also directed “Bloody Sunday”) and his team conducted intense research, including hundreds of interviews with the families of those passengers. The result is a faithful, sobering and realistic interpretation of that research that pays homage to those passengers while resisting the temptation to mythologize them. From a culture steeped in myths and caricatures, this is no small thing.
Using hand-held cameras, Greengrass takes us onto the plane, where we are offered a window seat to the tragedy. Watching the film, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you are not on that flight – and it is a chilling feeling indeed. But Greengrass also takes us into several control towers, into the FAA headquarters and even an Air Force base, where we are allowed to witness the helpless panic that prevailed.
There are a lot of messages in “United 93,” and people will take away many things. What stood out to me, however subtle, was Greengrass’s attempt to normalize the terrorists and to make them seem like they are just “one of us.” They are clean shaven and well dressed. They pray – even using words from the Episcopal liturgy ("Thanks be to God"). One even calls home, before boarding the plane, to say, “I love you.” Interestingly, in the subtitles, Greengrass also has the terrorists refer to “God” – not Allah.
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