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'United 93' a Masterpiece of Present-Tense History

By Jeremy Mathews
United 93
(out of four)
Universal Pictures
Written and directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring J.J. Johnson, Ben Sliney, Gregg Henry, David Alan Basche, Christian Clemenson, Becky London, Trish Gates, Cheyenne Jackson and Chip Zien
Rated R

After all the talk of potential pitfalls and uninformed controversy that surround "United 93" fades, Paul Greengrass's film will stand up as a masterpiece. It captures the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 and the people who witnessed it with bewilderment and horror, and does so without contrivance or dramatic pretense.

The film's accuracy will never be 100 percent confirmed—the screenplay is educated guesswork based on research on the passengers and the audio from phone calls and cockpit recordings. But it presents a compelling and convincing history of the events as they were unfolding, placing stern focus on what we knew at that moment. There are no obligatory nods to knowledge obtained in the days and years following the crash.

The title refers to the hijacked airplane that crashed in a field en route to its target when the passengers, after realizing that the hijacking was a suicide mission, banded together in an attempt to save the target and themselves. By the time the plane was hijacked, after a delayed takeoff out of Newark airport, enough time had passed that the United 93 passengers who called their loved ones with cellphones and airplane phones found out what was going on.

And it was in a long, heartbreaking series of events in which the truth became clear to the people on the ground. Writer/director Greengrass throws his camera into the FAA, airport and air force control centers and the titular plane with a handheld, documentary style that perfectly captures the confusion and hazy realizations of the day. More than four years after the attacks, this film brings back the confusing, limited and inaccurate knowledge we had in those early hours. It turns out that the air traffic controllers and FAA personnel were just as out of the loop as everyone who was glued to CNN, at first hearing that a small plane, not a large jet, hit the first World Trade tower.

Meanwhile, the passengers of United 93 experience a regular flight—the most notable thing the flight attendants have to talk about is how the flight's light load makes their job easy. One of the Islamic extremist hijackers is a bit nervous about timing while another is over-eager, but all of them are convinced of the need to kill in the name of their god. There is no attempt to delve into their past for motives.

The film's other characters are treated with the same present-tense point of view. We do not get long exposition about a character's past, or flashbacks to emphasize heroics. All Greengrass shows us is the people as they know each other on the plane—a few quick, friendly comments about what's going on, a little small talk, etc. Greengrass could have gotten away with less restraint, some "So what do you dos?" and "Where are you froms?" but such details wouldn't have made the experience any more immersive.

Once the hijacking takes place, the passengers reveal their individual skills. Bunched in the back of the plane, a nurse offers medical assistance, a small-plane pilot gives his insight and offers to help fly the plane when it becomes clear that the pilots have been killed. The bigger men band together to take on the hijackers and try to storm the cockpit. There is no single character cast as the hero, but the collective bravery is astonishing as a small tragedy occurs in the name of preventing a larger one.

On the ground, the film is equally attentive to the entire picture of controllers who notice strange anomalies with planes, their bosses and the military stations that follow up on the information. Greengrass cast many of the actual air traffic controllers and other personnel as themselves, adding even more naturalism to his recreation. Recreating the work environments, "United 93" displays a group of competent individuals who were caught off guard and didn't have the information or the power to stop the tragedy from taking place.

jeremy [at]


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