“United 93” isn’t a documentary it just feels like we’ve dropped in on the men and women whose lives ended when their plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001.
—Writer-director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”) doesn’t indulge in one exploitative, cliched or overwrought frame in bringing the final moments of United Flight 93 to cinematic life. It’s precise in its storytelling, powerful in its delivery and punishing as it captures the big picture of that horrific day.
And let there be little doubt about it, “United 93” isn’t just a big picture. It’s a great one.
The upcoming “World Trade Center” features a mustachioed Nicolas Cage saving lives in the collapsing World Trade Center, but everyone in “93” is relatively anonymous. The filmmakers even hired people directly involved that day to play themselves, lending the film an impossible to ignore verisimilitude.
We’re spared those manufactured moments where a character says his or her name so we can identify them from the headlines.
Where’s Todd Beamer, perhaps the flight’s most acknowledged hero? He’s here, but he’s simply another passenger trying to make sense of a terrorist hijacking.
The film follows the morning of September 11, from the drudgery of people wading through airport lines to aviation officials going through their daily drills.
It’s all so ordinary, so uneventful, until flight controllers loses contact with first one airplane, and later several more.
The newly installed FAA cwAviation Administration operations manager Ben Sliney, playing himself, must make sense of the looming catastrophe while keeping a cool head.
“United 93” captures it all without ever leaving the airports, cockpits and air traffic control nerve centers. It’s almost claustrophobic in its restricted scope, but the strategy keeps the focus solely on the matter at hand. No politics, no character arcs, nothing but the unfolding disaster and the passengers who did what they could to minimize the damage.
The first half of the film sets the stage. Planes go missing, the World Trade Center is attacked and no one really knows what could happen next. We then shift to Flight 93. The rest is the doomed flight itself, and we’re seated right next to the passengers, thanks to Mr. Greengrass’ hand-held camerawork.
Mr. Greengrass couldn’t avoid sequences showing those passengers calling loved ones for the last time, but the moments are brief and appropriately poignant.
“United 93” isn’t overtly political or manipulative. It’s a stunningly prepared document of arguably the worst day in this country’s history.
Ignore all the chatter over “Is it too soon?” Such questions evaporate under Paul Greengrass’ vision. Mr. Greengrass and company made all the right moves behind the scenes — they spoke with the victims’ families, promised to give partial proceeds from the film to a memorial fund and made sure those deeply hurt by the tragedy were a part of the entire creative process.
In the end, the best gift Mr. Greengrass gave them, and us, is an exquisitely orchestrated film that pays tribute to those who became the first unofficial soldiers in the war on terror.
TITLE: “United 93”
RATING: R (Disturbing violence, mature themes and adult language)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Paul Greengrass. Executive produced by Debra Hayward and Liza Chasin.
RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS