The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, February 17, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - United 93

Full review behind the jump

United 93

: Paul Greengrass
: Paul Greengrass
: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lloyd Levin, Paul Greengrass
: The practice of listing featured players in the cast from its most visible/famous performers on down seems inappropriate to this film. For the full cast list, see

I don’t need to tell you the story of
United 93. We all lived it in our own way and our memories need no stimulating. The strength of those memories makes it daunting to even consider watching this film, which will open up your heart to grieve all over again. I tried to go see it during its theatrical release back in April and changed my mind at the last minute for this reason – I was not ready then to refresh the pain of that day.

But there is no such thing as ready, really. The fact is I have seen
United 93 now and can confirm that viewing it is as gut-wrenching and tear-inducing as its reputation. It is also a triumph of filmmaking in every aspect, because it does not so much command us to those feelings as create a memorial space where we can feel safe to unburden ourselves of them. It is washed clean of politics, judgment and sensationalism, and from the shape of its story to the most minute detail of performance it is an effort simply to document what was not documented – to put cameras where there were none on September 11, 2001, so we can remember what real heroism looks like. It is one of the great films of 2006, and a singular achievement as the first effort by Hollywood to directly address this historical moment.

The story opens in a hotel room, as soon-to-be hijackers are getting dressed and saying their morning prayers. The movie observes this without comment, these are people who have come to this moment by the belief that they are doing the right thing, the holy thing, and while it is a great evil they are still human, and the movie allows them this. Their leader, sitting in the airport departure area, seems to fidget when another passenger sits next to him and calls his family. This smallest gesture speaks to a universal idea – simply seeing a human face on his victims has an effect on his resolve.

In tying together the events of that day, this movie finds a theme about how religious xenophobia and the murder it commands can only fester and succeed in an atmosphere of ignorance and lies. The hijackers on each of the four planes taken on that morning, for all their piety, told two deliberate falsehoods – that they had a bomb (they didn’t), and that they were returning to the airport (they weren’t). Those lies were concocted to keep the passengers docile. Only on flight 93, whose takeoff was delayed, did the passengers, speaking with their loved ones on cell phones, learn what was really going on. Just depicting that, writer/director Paul Greengrass knows, salutes its heroism. These passengers, and only these, knew what the stakes were, knew that more than their own lives were at risk. And this is what they decided to do.

The first half of the film covers a lot of ground, from the flight itself to air traffic control centers and military command posts. Everyone is struggling to get a clear picture of what's going on, and the potential for confusion is terrifying. Many of the people who actually had the watch on that day portray themselves in this film, selflessly acknowledging through their participation that they did their best, and it wasn’t enough, because what was actually happening was so beyond imagining then. Both they and the professional cast must do that which they are almost never called on for as actors, to simply be human for the camera. At this they triumph, one and all, and so in my praise for them I wouldn’t dare single anyone out above the others.

The conversations of the flight attendants, the pilots, the passengers, the controllers, are uninflected, mundane. No one knows today is important, or that when that main cabin door seals them off from the daylight, it will never again be opened. There’s one moment when a controller is tracking one of the hijacked flights, and can’t figure out where it’s going, because on his screen there is only a blank space between Kennedy and Newark airports. And then, without warning, the little icon representing the flight just vanishes, and as audience members our dread is catalyzed into perfect horror. In another control center across the river from Manhattan, it takes someone looking up from his screen and out the window to figure out what has happened.

In a military command post, a commander is doing his best to get planes in the air, convince them that this is not the drill that was supposed to happen today, and determine just what authority he has should they intercept one of the hijacked flights. We see that he knows what he might have to do, and that permission to do so can only come from the President himself, so he must act urgently without even knowing the rules of engagement. And in an FAA control room, so much information is flying in so quickly that they must rely on a simple dry erase white board to maintain a list of all the flights that they’re not sure of. In all these environments the camera is a nervous spectator, a deliberate simulacrum of documentary filmmaking that enhances its emotional power. We both understand why there is so much confusion, and dread our own clarity as viewers checking in from the aftermath.

And gradually these threads vanish, and we take a permanent place in the air with the passengers of United 93. We often memorialize our heroes by building statues, freezing them in a moment of nobility. This film, this extraordinary tribute, performs the same service, and is perhaps more appropriate because it does not bronze them. It does not show them as anything more than ordinary, but provides a record for this moment when ordinary people made a knowing, and extraordinary, sacrifice.


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