An American Tragedy
British Director Provides the Feel-Awful Hit of the Summer
United 93 features dozens of vignettes that would be unimportant background shots in other movies. Bored people chat on their cell phones outside an airport terminal gate, staring blankly through the bright morning light. Ground crews pump fuel into a jet’s wing tanks. A young woman boards a plane and crams her face into a pillow for a nap. Two outdoorsy-looking men plot out a big-sky country vacation on a map unfolded on a seat-back tray. A woman asks a flight attendant for water to take her pills. But writer/director Paul Greengrass opens the movie with four young Arab men, ashen and praying in a hotel room as they prepare to make their own connection. The tension between those glimpses of the oblivious America that existed as Sept. 11, 2001, dawned and the knowledge of what will happen as the events of the morning move inexorably toward a final plane crash in a field in Pennsylvania gives this story enormous power. Greengrass taps that power with resounding success.
British-born Greengrass is best-known in the States, if at all, for his 2004 Euro-action sequel The Bourne Supremacy, but the key movie for comparison’s sake in this instance is his 2002 art-house success Bloody Sunday. For it Greengrass seized on a pseudo-documentary style, using handheld cameras and natural light to create a riveting account of the famous 1972 massacre of Northern Irish protesters by British troops. He cut back and forth between the protesters and the soldiers, all played by little-knowns or amateurs cast for realism (e.g., the British squaddies looked like actual squaddies, rather than actor/waiters), building tension until the fateful encounter. It might as well have been an audition reel for United 93.
Indeed, Greengrass’ naturalistic style not only makes watching the events of Sept. 11 replay on a big screen bearable, it makes for surprisingly effective cinema. The way the World Trade Center towers appear almost incidentally in the background in an early shot is likely to send a small temblor through even the most stoic viewer, and Greengrass delivers a steady stream of similar low-key shocks. (After an optimistic weather report, an air-traffic control official beams and says, “It’ll be a good day on the East Coast.”) The director handles things so matter-of-factly that when the green dots begin to go off course on the air-traffic radar screens you hardly even realize that it means what it means at first.
That’s because no one on-screen—with the exception of the hijackers—understands what it means, and therein lies much of the force behind the terrible impact Greengrass creates. In a piercingly bittersweet evocation of what life was like just five years ago, no one expects that something like this can happen, when it first starts happening they can’t believe that it is, and when they realize that they must do something no one knows what to do. Greengrass’ camera jumps back and forth between roomfuls of air-traffic controllers slowly realizing the terrible implications of the data playing out on their work stations and a NORAD installation where air-defense officers preparing for yet another drill find themselves woefully unprepared for a “real-world situation,” a line delivered several times as if they were talking about a formation of deadly flying pigs.
Greengrass builds to one overt moment of capital-“d” drama: The air-traffic authorities begin to realize the scope of what they’re facing while United Airlines Flight 93 sits on the ground at Newark International Airport, waiting for takeoff clearance, the four hijackers sweating in their first-class seats; as the plane takes off, drums roll into a crescendo. (It’s practically the only score there is.) But as Greengrass focuses more and more on Flight 93, the tension ratchets up even further. It’s hard to think of a recent suspense movie that can top this: After the first planes hit the towers, Flight 93’s still-in-the-dark captain receives a baffling text message from his wife: “Are you okay?” As the hijackers and passengers grow more and more desperate, the movie’s final minutes are as charged and emotional as any that will likely appear on screen this year.
If there is any one aspect of United 93 that seems likely to draw controversy, it’s Greengrass’ treatment of the hijackers. Not only does the movie open with them, facing their own deaths and clearly shaken, it follows them intimately as they clear security, board, and then, thanks to lead hijacker Ziad Jarrah (Khalid Abdalla), wait and wait and wait. The men are terrorists, intent on killing themselves and hundreds of innocent people if possible, and nothing here contradicts that reality. But in not only showing Jarrah’s hesitation, but grounding it in his obvious, almost incapacitating fear, Greengrass humanizes him and his men. If anything, that makes the movie’s impact more terrible.
The overall lack of polemics here seems fitting for a story as somber and still raw for most Americans as this one. That said, Greengrass doesn’t avoid them entirely. A NORAD colonel spends much of his screen time trying to get rules of engagement for his pitiful handful of scrambled fighter jets. After he’s told that only the president can provide shoot-down orders and then left wondering when that can happen, visions of My Pet Goat may dance in your head. While the events of Sept. 11 are history in the most literal sense, and Greengrass hews as closely to it as possible, the few moments where he deviates even slightly from the straightforward account at which he excels here seem out of place in an otherwise respectful and moving film.