Though somber, movie gives a sense of triumph
Despite knowing the ending, the film is still suspenseful.
By ROBERT W. BUTLER
KANSAS CITY STAR
Future generations may regard Paul Greengrass' "United 93" as one of the finest docudramas ever.
For now, though, it's likely to be the best film nobody wants to see.
Many feel that the wounds of Sept. 11, 2001, are still fresh, that it's too painful to be reminded of what we endured.
I can only respond with my own experience. I approached a recent critics' screening of "United 93" with dread and left the theater sad and shaken, yes, but also with an unexpected sense of triumph.
The men and women on that doomed flight fought back, and in doing so saved our Capitol building and those inside it from destruction.
We'll never know exactly what went on aboard that airplane bound from Newark to San Francisco. But Greengrass' screenplay is probably as realistic and accurate treatment as we'll see.
About the style
Shot in a semi-documentary style (handheld camera, natural lighting) and performed by a largely no-name cast, the film begins with the sound of a prayer -- in Arabic. We're in a Newark hotel where four Middle Eastern men are performing their morning devotions. The highjackers.
A typical Hollywood film would develop back stories in an effort to make the characters more familiar to audiences. But Greenglass and his cast are moving too quickly for that kind of dramatic cliche. We don't even learn the names of most of these people, although they've been wisely cast to reflect specific looks that make them easier to identify.
Mostly the film's early passages are filled with the banality of everyday life. People make cell phone calls and fiddle with laptops. Cabin attendants trade comments about being exhausted and which one of them has a crush on a hunky ground crew guy. Everybody ignores the preflight spiel about emergency exits and flotation devices.
While the passengers on Flight 93 are waiting to take off, we find ourselves in various East Coast air traffic control centers, where FAA officials struggle to understand why three jet liners have strayed from their flight plans and cut off communications.
Meanwhile the U.S. military is planning a major exercise off the Atlantic coast. After two planes hit the World Trade Center (an eerie scene viewed from the Newark air control tower), the officer in charge (Gregg Henry) realizes that Washington could be next. Precious minutes tick by while he's unable to contact the president or vice president to authorize rules of engagement which would allow fighters to shoot down a passenger aircraft.
Terrorists take over
Then the terrorists on Flight 93, already delayed by a late departure, take over, killing three crew members and threatening the passengers with a bomb. A flurry of tearful and panicked cell phone calls brings the news of the World Trade Center disaster. With the terrorists at the front of the plane, the passengers gather at the rear to take stock.
The highjackers have turned the plane around; it's clear it is to be used as a missile to destroy some important building. If the passengers rise up, the terrorist with the bomb may set it off.
It becomes increasingly clear that if nothing is done, they're all going to die. And once the horror of that realization passes, these men and women with nothing to lose decide to fight back. With acceptance has come a new courage.
Some passengers believe the bomb is fake, that explosives couldn't be smuggled aboard. They decide to charge the knife-wielding terrorist who has it strapped to his chest and then, if anyone is still alive, storm the cockpit and retake the plane. There's a passenger (David Rasche) who may be able to land it safely.
"United 93," which unfolds in more or less real time, is remarkable for the degree of suspense it generates given that we already know how its ends. And the cast is uniformly excellent, which is to say that we never see anyone acting. In fact, many of the air traffic controllers who followed that day's grim events on their radar screens play themselves in the film.
There's nothing that smells of editorializing here -- the film doesn't even try to make the highjackers villainous. Acts of violence take place just out of camera range.
By sticking to the facts, Greengrass has created a surprisingly effective tribute to the heroism of common people and a cautionary tale that demands to be seen. And you can't help leaving "United 93" without asking whether we'll be ready if something like 9/11 should happen again.