This is not a review of the film United 93. If you want my opinion of the movie I’ll tell you that, yes, it’s a very good, perhaps great film. However, I have been interviewing director Paul Greengrass since this film first began, and between that and the extensive coverage I have been doing on the film – and will continue to do this week -I wanted to avoid the sense of any ethical lines being crossed. The official CHUD review of United 93 will be written by Russ Fischer. I won’t be consulting with him before he writes it.
That said, I found myself with things I wanted to say about the film. I know, it seems like I’ve probably spent enough words on this movie, but almost none of them were about the actual experience of watching it.
It seems like Paul Greengrass may have started his own movement. He began it with Bloody Sunday, but has really honed it with United 93; for the sake of argument I’m going to call it neo-factualism. It’s a cinema of believable truth, as he calls it, and it focuses on true events – the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, or the crash of flight 93 on 9/11 – with specific attention paid to facts, detail and realism. In his neo-factualist films, Greengrass finds out as much as he can about the event he’s depicting and recreates as much of it as possible and then, having carefully built this structure of verisimilitude, gives his actors room to find their own reality for their characters. In the end the scenes in Bloody Sunday or United 93 may not be true in the very strictest sense of the word – those lines were not spoken, that exact action was not taken – but they are very true in the deeper, emotional sense of the word. Yes, the audience says, that was how it must have been.
It’s a world between documentary and narrative, and some people have gotten lost on their way there. I have had arguments with other journalists about the film where they’ll take the position of “No one could know what happened on that plane!” Which is true, but doesn’t really change the inherent emotional truth of what Greengrass is showing.
What I think may make people like that journalist uncomfortable with the believable truth of United 93 is the way that the film doesn’t tell you how to feel. It’s not truly viewpoint neutral – the art of editing is in and of itself one of judgment, and inherently manipulative – but it’s about as close as you’re going to get in a movie. There’s a score, sometimes, but there isn’t the swell of trumpets or stab of strings to blast a preordained emotion into your brain. The lighting of the film is essentially naturalistic – if you were at the Boston control tower, or on United 93, or in the Northeast Air Defense Sector command center, this is probably what the lighting would look like on that day. Greengrass’ skittish handheld camera circles the action, at once bringing you the immediacy of the events while often staying just outside of them.
It’s by losing those narrative film crutches that United 93 finds its power. Like Bloody Sunday the film stops feeling like a story, and we erase a level of distance. Like Bloody Sunday, United 93 ends up being emotionally devastating; is it the rawness of the film or the events themselves that touch us so deeply? A little bit of both – while these neo-factualist films aren’t traditionally narrative (none of the characters in United 93 gets a proper introduction – you won’t know who is who on that plane without prior information, but that is part of the point), they do manage to also feel sort of like thrillers, but reverse thrillers. In both films we know the horrible outcomes that await us at the end, the tension is in getting there.
I have some problems with the first half of United 93 that come from the basic style of the film. The movie moves in a largely real time way, with some exceptions, but the first forty minutes to an hour of the movie see the flight first sitting on the tarmac and then eventually, after delays, taking off. Outside of the plane 9/11 is already happening – has, in fact, already happened. Rather than spend time with the passengers sitting around reading their papers, United 93’s first half follows the story on the ground as the FAA and the military try to come to terms with this unbelievable series of events that, even more horrifying, they can do very little about.
It’s an interesting angle on the hijacking and crashes of the other three planes. In 2006 we know enough about what happened to fill in the blanks that the characters on screen are slowly filling in themselves, and it’s illuminating and depressing to see these people scramble to take control of a situation no one ever prepared for. Conspiracy theory is a religion, so no evidence will dissuade the true believers, but Greengrass’ believable truth cuts through the shit and shows us civilian and military systems trying to cope and failing. That, to me, is scarier than any smoke clouded room of Zionist gnomes or whoever is being blamed lately.
The angle is interesting, but in the end too long. My only real complaint with the film is that it hews too closely to the events of the day here, bringing us back and forth between control towers and NEADS and the FAA again and again and again. This is the really factual stuff, though. Greengrass has gone to the source, and the people playing air traffic controllers are mostly air traffic controllers. The scenes are filled with jargon and technical issues; it’s almost impressionistic. Sometimes it feels like watching a particularly visually oriented foreign film without subtitles.
The final half hour or so is given entirely to the events on the flight. Air traffic and NEADS drop out, rightfully so. Their 9/11 is over.
There are a few scenes in this section of the film that break from what I would consider strict neo-factualism and into something more conventional. One scene crosscuts between praying passengers, steeling themselves for an assault on the hijackers, and the terrorists praising Allah. It’s a weird moment, especially since at my screening the only prayer being said by the passengers is the Lord’s Prayer. In a film that so carefully keeps itself from bringing attention to things – some viewers will doubtlessly be annoyed throughout as important things happen in the corner of the frame – it’s jolting to see a segment that seems to recast the struggle as one of colliding faiths. It’s silly to deny that, on some level, that’s what’s happening in the world today, but the rest of United 93 seems to take great pains to demythologize these passengers (sure, they’re heroic, but what they were fighting for wasn’t Our Way of Life or even to save the lives of people in the Capitol but rather their own immediate survival), yet this scene mythologizes the context of the battle.
What’s impressive about the film is the way the actual battle hits you. Flags do not wave, cameras do not circle Todd Beamer as he delivers his majestic “Let’s roll” speech (in the film “Let’s roll” is a throwaway line, whispered in anxious impatience), music does not triumphantly burst out. But as the passengers rush up the aisle and take on these men it’s almost impossible not to find yourself on the edge of your seat, rooting for them, happy to see these bastards get what’s coming to them. Amazingly, in that moment, it’s easy to forget the film you’ve been sitting through and believe a miraculous victory is about to be snatched from the jaws of certain doom.
But it’s not. And then the scene takes on a different light. The passengers’ attack is vicious, brutal. One of the terrorists is beaten over the head with what I believe is a fire extinguisher until it sounds like his skull pops. Suddenly I found myself thinking of a very specific film genre, the zombie movie, especially the inevitable scenes at the end of each when the masses of the living dead break through into the safe zones of the living. How quickly the inspiring unity of these passengers can be recast as mob mentality, as everyone vies for their opportunity to deliver a blow.
In that moment United 93 captures – captures perfectly – the duality of our lives now. The violence of the passengers is, without doubt, completely justified, and yet also terrifyingly mindless. There it is again, that believable truth. Nobody knows how the hijackers in the cabin were overpowered, but even if the scenes in the film aren’t the exact facts as they occurred they’re still the complete and total truth. And they’re transcendent.
I’ve seen spoiler warnings put on discussions about this film, which strikes me as essentially absurd in an almost Spinal Tap-ian way. But in the interest of not offending the sensibilities of those who might care about such things, the next section of this essay will be talking about the final scene of the movie.
When United 93 was shot, certain elements of the final moments of the flight were in contention (outside of the loony conspiracy fringe, who insist on claiming the flight was shot down. No mention of this is made in the film, and again, the ground control sequences go a long way towards arguing against it). Propagandists claimed that the passengers crashed the plane, which really makes no sense – Americans don’t do that. It’s not in our national character, which is part of what makes the 9/11 attacks so horrifying to us. Meanwhile, some people doubted that the passengers ever managed to breech the cockpit. Greengrass goes for the idea that they did, which seems to be reflected in the recently released black box transcripts.
Those last moments are hectic. Shooting on a set built to the exact specifications of a 757, without removable walls to make camera movement easier, the film crew and the actors can’t all fit in the tiny cockpit. The camera itself seems to be jostling for position until it finds its final view, out the cockpit window, with the battling arms of terrorists and passengers slashing into frame. In those climactic seconds the hijackers send the plane nose first toward a field outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the green ground fills the window. The fighting never stops as the trees and grass rush forward, and it’s the most excruciating moments of the film as we wonder how that final impact will be portrayed. But it’s also weirdly pretty – it reminded me of Guernica, a tableau both horrible and beautiful. It’s that weird beauty of Picasso’s tortured shapes that gives the painting its longevity and relevance – a painting that was just grotesque would have long since been filed away.
The impact is represented by a sudden cut to black. It’s shocking. In my theater I heard people start breathing again, those breaths sometimes wracked with sobs. My own stomach was a knot, but my cheeks were somehow dry; I don’t know how I made it through the whole film without crying. People say that United 93 is a tough film to watch, and that’s true but also not. There are tough sections, especially the final thirty minutes, which will send people staggering out of theaters. But the film isn’t about delivering body blows. Greengrass isn’t looking to punish the audience or rub our noses in the horrors of the day. That’s an important point to be made.
United 93 accomplishes everything I think one could hope for – it’s a fair and straightforward retelling of the known events of the day, and it’s a work of truly exceptional art. Some people have said that if they want to know about what happened on Flight 93 they’ll read a book or watch a documentary. That’s fair. But it’s not complete. Purely factual books and documentaries about 9/11 have their place – I strongly recommend the incredible 102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn; you’ll find no more comprehensive a look at what happened in the Twin Towers – but so does narrative, even when it’s neo-factual like United 93. The books can tell you what happened, but the movie lets you know how it felt.
That’s the place for art. But actually, on second thought, I’m wrong. Art isn’t about letting you know how it felt – art is about letting you feel how it felt.