WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: On September 11, 2001 United Airlines Flight 93 eventually leaves Newark airport, bound for San Francisco; but four Al-Qaeda terrorists ensure that it will never reach its destination. As the passengers learn of events in New York, they decide that their plane will not be used in the same way, whatever the personal cost.
Four terrorists make their way to Newark airport to catch a flight to San Francisco. They mingle with passengers and board United Airlines Flight 93 on time, but heavy traffic means a half hour delay to take-off. While they wait, Air Traffic Control in Boston (and the National centre in Herndon, Virginia) become aware that American Airlines Flight 11 has potentially been hijacked, the first hijack of a passenger flight in America for about twenty years. The military, about to conduct an exercise on the East Coast, scramble jets and wait on Presidential orders regarding rules of engagement, but tragically, the magnitude of the incident is not recognised immediately and United 93 is allowed to take off.
Air Traffic Control in Boston and New York view the progress of Flight 11, and subsequently Flight 175, with increasing concern, but everyone is stunned when the planes hit the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, a third flight later striking the Pentagon. Meanwhile, on board United 93, the terrorists – despite a late attack of nerves from the pilot – put their plan into action, terrifying the passengers who nonetheless compose themselves to make heartbreaking phone calls to their loved ones. As the stewards and passengers come to the realisation that the pilots are dead, they find a man prepared to fly the plane and resolve to confront the hijackers. The terrorists, however, have nothing to lose and are determined to bring the flight down.
There can hardly be anyone with access to the internet who doesn’t remember the events of 9/11 like they were yesterday, such was the horror of the event and the sheer amount of coverage it received, both in terms of footage from the day itself and programmes devoted to the outrage in the following months and years. It’s great credit to Paul Greengrass’ skill as both writer and director that he brilliantly balances the drama of the day, giving due weight to events in New York but concentrating on different, unheralded dramas too.
The first thirty minutes are spent preparing for take off, with the first inklings from traffic control that something is wrong; the next thirty deal with the unfolding horror as the planes hit their targets in New York; the next thirty are sheer panic and confusion both on the ground and on United 93; and the last thirty are given over entirely to the passengers’ struggle to take control of the flight. It’s amazing how much drama Greengrass wrings from rooms full of people talking on phones and computer screens (the moment American Airlines Flight 11 disappears is quite spooky), and the recreation of United 93’s last flight – especially its last moments – is incredibly affecting, considering the viewer has known from the start how it ends.
If you were to come at United 93 blind, you might suppose that the terrorists are all portrayed as single-minded, towel-headed bastards and the passengers as saintly, homily-spouting patriots. But the film isn’t like that, taking an absolutely objective look at the events of the day: the terrorists’ prayers to Allah and the passengers’ recitation of the Lord’s Prayer go side by side. There are many who will be horrified by the fact that the film doesn’t overtly emphasise the horror of the terrorist atrocity and the bravery of the men who fight back; but in fact the film does make precisely these points, without ever waving them in the viewer’s face, and is all the more effective for it.
Moreover, United 93 never explicitly criticises the response to the events of the tragic morning; it merely re-enacts what happens and lets the viewer make their own conclusions about the lack of communication between civilian and military command centres, the lack of clarity about rules of engagement, the jets sent in the wrong direction by mistake (as the end captions point out, by the time fighter jets were ready, no orders were passed to pilots in case of accidental shootings). The film is dramatic and damning without ever having to resort to cheap movie tricks; that said, whilst the handheld camera is naturalistic and involving (you often feel as though you’re sat at a nearby desk, or in one of the plane’s seats), its sheer restlessness did occasionally make me feel slightly nauseous.
You’ll have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any actors’ names so far, and there are good reasons for this. Firstly, this is not an actor’s picture, and in any case it’s not as if any of the ‘stars’ are people you’ll recognise; secondly, some of the ground staff are re-enacting their own roles on the day, and it’s not really fair to set one group apart from the other. Suffice to say that everyone is defined despite the chaotic scenes; and just to name one person, Ben Sliney is convincing as himself, the National Operations Manager on his first day on the job.
Whilst United 93 is as much a re-enactment as a drama, the very fact that it refuses to overplay or distort any element of the events (compare, for example, Pearl Harbor or even Titanic) for ‘entertainment’ works in its favour. It’s paradoxical, I know, but its unobtrusive observation of events makes the film all the more emotional. It’s not always the easiest watch – sometimes because of the wilfully violent camerawork – but United 93 is as good a film about 9/11 as you could hope to see.