UNITED 93 (2006)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Ben Sliney, Khalid Abdalla, Corey Johnson
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 90% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A real-time account of the events on United Flight 93, one of the planes hijacked on September 11th, 2001, and of the chaos on the ground as the FAA and the military grasped what was happening.

There are a handful of movies that can still make me cry when watching them, even on repeat viewings, and even then it doesn’t always happen.  Fearless, directed by Peter Weir, is one of them.  The finale of Edward Scissorhands still has the power to choke me up.  The transition from black-and-white to color at the end of Schindler’s List can still bring a lump to my throat given the right circumstances.

But only one movie has made me shed real tears every single time I watch it, and I’ve seen it now at least four times.  I used to watch it every time September 11th came around, as a sort of (morbid?) remembrance of that terrible day.  I haven’t done so the last couple of years simply because the emotional reaction I have to the movie and the events it depicts is just too much to deal with.

Paul Greengrass’ United 93 is unlike any other film about 9/11 that I’ve ever seen.  Many people praised Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center when it came out, but I found that movie too pumped up with melodrama and forced situations.  United 93, on the other hand, takes a documentary approach and simply follows the passengers and crew boarding their flight, like any other, on their way to a date with destiny that nobody saw coming.

Intercut with the flight itself are scenes on the ground, in various air traffic control centers, and the FAA itself.  One of the masterstrokes of the film was to cast Ben Sliney as himself.  Ben Sliney, for those who don’t remember, was the FAA Operations Manager on 9/11.  In fact, it was his first day on the job in that new position that very morning.  It was his decision, after seeing the carnage in NYC and the Pentagon, to take the unprecedented step of grounding ALL air traffic over the United States.

The movie’s effectiveness comes partly from the re-enactments of the ground controllers, trying to make sense of garbled messages coming from first one, then two, then three flights, something about people taking control – and then seeing those flights disappear from radar coverage.  And then someone in the tower sees smoke coming from downtown New York…  Those scenes, more than any documentary I’ve seen, really bring back the memories of that morning for me, the disbelief and utter shock of seeing that building burning and smoking.  And then the second plane hits…

But the movie’s real power is with the flight that ultimately didn’t hit a significant target, crashing instead in a field in Pennsylvania.  (There has been some speculation about its intended target, but the truth is we’ll never know.)  The scenes aboard United 93 have been pieced together using recorded phone conversations from passengers, flight deck recordings, and data on the plane’s flight path.  There’s no way to know how accurate some of these events are, but the point of the movie is that it feels 100% real.  The fear on the face of the hijackers, the fear of the passengers, the slow realization that this flight is headed to another target, and their gradual determination to do something about it.

Watching those scenes, with the knowledge that this flight will eventually crash with total loss of life, is an unbearably sad experience.  The final few minutes of the film, as the passengers rush their attackers and frantically try to break down the cockpit door, fills me with dread.  I find myself thinking, unreasonably, “Maybe this time they’ll get to the cockpit in time…maybe THIS time they’ll get the one pilot among the passengers behind the wheel this time…”  But no.

So WHY, oh, WHY do I give this movie a “10” when it’s such an immensely tragic experience?

Because this movie does not feel like a cheap attempt to cash in on a national tragedy.  Instead, it feels more like a memorial to those brave souls who did everything they could to keep themselves alive, to keep their attackers from fulfilling their evil deeds.  As much as any soldiers who gave their lives attacking a beach head, these everyday civilians deserve our gratitude, and they should be acknowledged as genuine heroes.  I believe United 93 treats them as such.

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