Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Paul Greengrass
Starring: J.J. Johnson, David Alan Basche, Liza Colon-Zayas
Runtime: 111 minutes
Paul Greengrass’ Academy Award nominated United 93 certainly isn’t a film for the faint of heart, nor is it a film that pulls any punches. Released on the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, United 93 depicts the events that took place aboard the plane of the same name. United Flight 93 was to be the fourth plane used in a series of deadly terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. Two of the hijacked planes hit the famed World Trade Center, with the third hitting a section of the Pentagon in Washington. The first half of the film takes place in flight control centres around the country as the terror attacks and hijackings are happening, and the second act takes place as United 93 is in mid-air. The passengers aboard the plane decide to take action against the four men who have taken control of the flight.
Anybody reading this post right now certainly doesn’t need a history lesson about what took place on that fateful day. Greengrass’ film assumes that the audience knows everything they need to know going into the film, and that was most definitely the best possible choice for the director. From the very beginning United 93 is a procedural of sorts, not focusing on any specific characters or locations, instead jumping between numerous flight control centres as the events of the morning are unfolding. They must face the reality that three planes in the air have been hijacked and are heading towards their targets, and that is handled with incredible care and maturity. This act of the film uses real news/archival footage from September 11th, and it works incredibly well to set up the atmosphere for what is to come in the second act of the film.
The second half of the film is where United 93 /really/ shines. The cast is entirely made up of non-professional/unknown actors, and it definitely works to the films benefit. Nobody on flight United 93 is made out to be some kind of superhuman hero. These are real, desperate people in the most desperate of situations, and they provide for some of the best scenes put to film in the 2000’s, which is a huge compliment. Both sides of the cast (the hijackers and the passengers) do an amazing job here, both having brilliant moments throughout. United 93 is the furthest thing from an exploitation of 9/11. Paul Greengrass earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Director in 2006 due to his incredibly subtle, caring, sensitive and yet incredibly reality-based direction, and really deserved to be beside names like Martin Scorsese (who took the award home), Clint Eastwood, and Stephen Frears that year. This is how every film depicting ugly moments in our history should be.
The fact that the audience watching the film knows exactly what is going to happen no matter how far the passengers get only makes this tale more tragic. United 93 is a brilliant portrait of a very unfortunate day in American history. It is handled with incredible care by a talented writer/director, and by an incredible ensemble cast. It’s definitely one of the greatest treasures of mid-2000’s cinema, even though it isn’t necessarily an easy watch. If you, like me, were turned off by the thought of the film being overly-patriotic or insensitive, have no fear! United 93 is a film the likes of which I’ve never seen before. 9.5/10.