Doesn’t seem to matter that United 93, written and directed with bruising brilliance and healing compassion by Paul Greengrass, is a monumental achievement that stands above any film this year. According to the polls, audiences intend to shun it. It’s too soon, we’re told, for a movie to take on 9/11. It’s too speculative to watch a re-enactment of what might have happened that morning on United Airlines Flight 93 — departing Newark for San Francisco — when thirty-three passengers and seven crew members rose up against the four knife-wielding hijackers who killed the pilots and took control of the plane. It’s too hard to watch brave people lose their lives as they force the plane to miss its presumed target in D.C. and crash into a Pennsylvania field. To which I ask: Are American audiences always to be coddled by fantasy? Is harsh reality forever out of bounds at the multiplex?
If so, we’re in a sorry state, doomed to commercial choices — is it Mi3 or Poseidon? — and a world where ambition falls victim to a risk-adverse box office. None of that for Greengrass, a British director with a background in documentaries. His Bloody Sunday, in 2002, re-created and stayed true to the 1972 massacre involving British soldiers and Irish peace marchers in Northern Ireland. In 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy, he built suspense in a mainstream action film without compromising political urgency. Greengrass refused to make United 93 without the support of the families of the passengers and crew. They could not have found a better champion.
There’s not an ounce of Hollywood bull in this movie’s 111 minutes. To achieve authenticity, Greengrass used little-known actors and recruited aviation and military personnel to play themselves, most notably Ben Sliney, who marked September 11th as his first day on the job as chief of air traffic control at the Federal Aviation Administration’s command center in Virginia. Images that repetition has burned into our consciousness — two planes crashing into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon — flash by as they did on that day, leaving the world in shock and the government unprepared to act.
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It’s then that Greengrass takes us into the fourth hijacked plane, as passengers on cells or plane phones learn of the attacks. Using hand-held cameras and shooting in real time, he captures the staggering horror of that ninety-one-minute flight and how courage emerged from chaos. Some families were worried that the film would focus on the quartet of ex-athletes — Todd Beamer (David Alan Basche), Mark Bingham (Cheyenne Jackson), Tom Burnett (Christian Clemenson) and Jeremy Glick (Peter Hermann) — who made calls to loved ones and reported the plan to go down fighting. But Greengrass’ gaze takes in everything. Beamer’s famous “Let’s roll” comment is delivered off-the-cuff, not like a battle cry in a bogus action flick. We will never know whether the passengers actually breached the cockpit. What matters to Greengrass is their collective intent. At the end, he imagines a sea of arms reaching into that cockpit in a way that redefines heroism. Far from being exploitive, the effect is inspiring: This is the best of us.