‘United 93’ brings back real-life terror

Reeling it in

Posted: Thursday, May 04, 2006


  "United 93" Universal Studios 2 hours, 1 minute JONATHAN OLLEY

"United 93"

Universal Studios

2 hours, 1 minute


As I walked into the theater to watch this week’s controversial 9-11 remembrance pic, I ran through the various arguments I’d been hearing, and having since word of it came out. “It’s too soon,” goes one. “Never forget,” goes another. I’ll admit, I’ve been of two minds on the subject, but probably more on the pro side. Five years provides a lot of distance, and as far as a comparison, they were making World War II movies before the war was even over. I figured there was ample time to watch dispassionately, but I was completely unprepared. Seeing the events unfold on screen took me right back to that awful morning. It was gut-wrenching.

“United 93” tells the tragic, yet heroic tale of one of four planes that were hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001. The other three, as everyone knows, were used as suicide missiles to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The fourth’s destination will probably never be assured, though the film picks the Capitol building as its target. That was a target that the plane would never reach because, as everyone also knows, flight 93 out of Newark nosedived into a field in rural Pennsylvania, its destructive mission thwarted by a revolt among the passengers aboard.

The film chronicles these events without context or preamble, and does not linger long after the inevitable demise. Bouncing between several air traffic control centers and the plane, the characters are revealed mostly through fleeting conversations or moments of harried desperation. Precious little time is offered to get to know any one particular character, a storytelling handicap that actually works to the film’s advantage considering that it mirrors the reality of the situation. The director and writers do a remarkable job of pacing, and when the first plane hits the tower, we are surprised, though we know what’s happening. As the second plane hits, the mounting horror seems to flow back and forth from the screen to the audience, as if we are all in the same boat.

The reason for this beautiful and terrible empathetic connection between the characters and the observers is twofold. First, we were all in the same boat, just five short years ago. And second, in a risky, yet brilliant move, the filmmakers chose to cast the actual people involved wherever possible. Many of the air traffic controllers and military officials you see are the actual people involved, and their frustration and panic is genuine. This tact, and the grainy, never-quite-still camera gives the entire film a feeling of real life, without seeming gimmicky. On the flight end, there are a few recognizable faces, but the director wisely chose to avoid any big names or stars to distract from the story of simple people thrust into a terrifying situation.

When I left the auditorium, you could almost hear your own heart beating, it was so quiet. I still had questions, though. Why make this film? That’s what I can’t quite figure out. I don’t begrudge the experience, but I’m not sure what statement is being sent.

The film itself seems to take almost no position, other than that of the obvious — the heroic qualities of the victims. There are no anti-Muslim sentiments, however, nor are there any particularly anti-Bush or anti-American positions, either. The film plays it absolutely straight, giving almost no insight into the terrorists themselves, other than to suggest that they were young, blindly idealistic, and scared out of their wits. It does not feel as though the director is trying to legitimate their actions, however, merely to place an unbiased camera in the middle of the situation and show how likely as not the event unfolded.

I suppose the argument that the film exists as a tribute the passengers of flight 93 is legitimate, but the film doesn’t go out of its way to lionize any particular character, though as a group the courage they showed was powerful and inspiring.

Aside from displaying the obvious lack of preparation for such an event, it seems, almost impossibly, that the film is entirely apolitical. I think that’s OK; the way it should be. That’s probably why I was so irritated when I got an e-mail last night exhorting me to go see the movie if I was someone who “cares about defending America!” The page contained celebrity endorsements, the first being a quote from Rush Limbaugh.

I don’t know if that e-mail came from the production department of the film, or from a jingoistic Republican think tank. Wherever it came from, I think it missed the point. In the end, I think the point is that everyone involved in these terrible events were human and flawed and scared and the same, somehow. And maybe that brings us all closer together, and maybe all the other arguments and conflicts and petty differences don’t really matter. I hope that’s why the movie was made; and if not, at least it’s what I’ll take from it. Grade: A

“United 93” is rated R for brutal violence and language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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