Sitting down before United 93, I expected a difficult experience. I was prepared for a film that would play to my assumptions about the hijacking and its perpetrators. I worried that it would be crass. And the film is sometimes extremely difficult to watch; it would probably be worthless otherwise. But crass and obvious it’s not. What I found was a riveting experience that fully engaged me in two very different ways: intellectually and on a deep primal level.

Instead of splitting the movie in half, that paired rational and emotional response makes it whole. A film which only lingered on the fate of the passengers would be excruciating, and likely obscene. One which minimized their fate in favor of exploring the FAA’s response to the 9/11 hijackings would be hollow.

By spreading his attention between the ground response and the hijacking, Paul Greengrass strikes an ideal balance, and the movie draws you in despite every ounce of emotional resistance you can muster.

While we’re on the ground I was constantly leaning forward, nearly out of my seat. I wanted to see more; I wanted more effective government agencies and better information flow. The film built in me an ardent desire for something that isn’t fated to happen. By contrast, when the camera is on flight 93, I spent every moment digging further back into my seat, shying away from the events I knew I couldn’t get away from.

The curtains open on 9/11 as two of the hijackers pray in their hotel room. We stroll into the day, following passengers and in-flight staff onto the plane. At the FAA, Eastern command center head Ben Sliney is beginning his first day on the job. Boston’s air traffic control center eases into routine. Greengrass weaves this daily business into a single narrative with apparently little effort. Soon he’s cutting between events on the ground and in the air, using one to emphasize the other.

A primary triumph of United 93 is that it depicts dozens of memorable individuals without applying dramatic gloss. It rarely even lingers on their names. You won’t know the identities of the flight’s passengers, but every face will be etched in memory. Ben Sliney’s performance as himself is outstanding, and you’ll likely key into the feeling that you’re watching events really unfold, rather than the fact that a real FAA officer is appearing as himself.

The performances of Trish Gates (stewardess Sandy Bradshaw), Patrick St. Esprit (the frustrated Major Nasypany), Omar Berdouni, Khalid Abdalla, Jamie Harding and many others are equally powerful. United 93 is superbly cast, and the use of non-actors makes Soderbergh’s recent efforts look amateurish.

In Bloody Sunday Greengrass demonstrated how a rough, actor-centric neofactualist style (blame Devon for that tag) could highlight factual events and pose questions about our behavior during terrible times. Here that style is quite evidently refined; the camera moves quickly to capture the smartly directed ensemble. It places us squarely in the middle of events without creating the feel of a cheap recreation.

United 93 offers no explanations. There are no theories or monologues about religion or politics. There are few expressed motivations. Obviously, despite intensive research, some elements are speculative. But actions and their consequences are allowed to speak, filtered only through an (apparently) loose editorial net.

It’s a smart choice that has deep repercussions throughout the film. Without excessive speculated dialogue, the hijackers remain almost blank, as the passengers would have seen them. (There is some dialogue between the four men, but only a portion is subtitled.) While other films (Paradise Now and Syriana) have ably exposed some of the factors that create suicide bombers, Greengrass doesn’t use this film as a platform for his own terrorist exegesis.

Ironically, I was more fascinated by activity on the ground than what went on in the air. Greengrass captures the chaos of disaster amazingly well. It’s all too easy to believe that our peacetime infrastructure was unable to muster a meaningful response to the hijackings in the scant few hours between the takeover of American 11 and crash of United 93. I can almost guarantee you’ll walk out of this film ready to read every FAA document available, to see what’s changed in the five years since 9/11.

This is a uniquely frightening film, not only because of what happens on the flight, but because of the way the ground efforts failed to cohere in time to prevent more deaths. Greengrass maintains a boiling level of tension by cutting to the hijacking, but the fear that our best efforts just aren’t enough is far more subversive and lasting than the terror of being on the plane. There are no fingers pointed — all the people on the ground are doing their jobs well and diligently — but United 93 suggests that this circumstance was simply beyond our abilities.

By contrast, the actual events on the plane are necessarily more speculation than fact, and their conclusion fully pre-ordained, as dreadful as that is to write. Consequently, I was drawn more by morbidity than intellect; when the movie takes to the sky, it gripped me through dread, rage and horror. For the final ‘act’ Greengrass allows the chaos on United 93 to hold the film’s attention, and it plays out with an intensity that burns.

Here Greengrass’ quick-moving camera is most at home. His style allows him to present violence with a horrifying and hard swiftness — the blood, sweat and terror are sticky and palpable — but also to back away just as quickly. United 93 doesn’t shy away from the hijackers’ violence, but neither does it linger on it.

There are moments in the air where Greengrass indulges himself slightly. The sight of the primary hijacker taping a photo of his target, the Capital Building, to the plane’s steering wheel feels contrived. Did that really happen? If nothing else, I’ll take it as a pointed reminder that United 93 had a powerful symbolic target; one that might have dramatically intensified our national response if hit.

That reminder combined with the frank and brutal vision of the passengers’ retaliation celebrates the final actions on board flight 93, but without fanfare or exploitation. By suggesting the long-range repercussions of a successful hijacking of United 93, the film becomes a sobering reminder of the importance of responsibility and action.

I walked out of the film with horror and grief at the fate of the innocents killed that day. But what lingers and continues to reside in me is an insistent set of questions about how we can be better informed, connected and safeguarded, without squandering the character and privileges that make us what we are.

9.5 out of 10