If there’s one thing everybody in America remembers, it’s where they were when they heard that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11. It’s our generation’s version of the Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor.
To say that it’s a tender subject is the understatement of the decade, and it’s not one that most people want to think about. We especially don’t want to think about Hollywood capitalizing off the tragedy, but when they announce they’re making three 9/11-related movies in the space of a week, it gets hard to think about anything else.
Paul Greengrass’s United 93, about the flight that crashed in the Pennsylvania field, is the first up out of the bunch. There are no actors you would recognize, nor is it a particularly long movie. It unfolds almost in real time. And by it’s subject matter alone, we already know how it will begin, what will happen, and how it will end. And we’re emotionally involved from frame one.
Watching what likely happened behind the scenes, with the FAA, the air traffic controllers, the military, and the passengers on the plane is both gripping and heart-wrenching. The whole thing seems to be filmed with handheld cameras, which give it a sense of immediacy and a documentary-like feel. Whether or not it’s what “really” happened, it feels pretty close.
There’s an edge-of-your-seat tension during the two-thirds of the movie, where we’re not only on United 93, but also with the FAA, various air traffic controllers, and the military. We’re waiting for the terrorists on United 93 to make their move. We’re waiting for those behind the scenes to realize these aren’t normal hijackings, that there is a bigger plan. And we’re waiting for that fateful moment when the planes crash into the World Trade Center and the tidal wave of a response it brings.
We’re not really introduced to any of the people in the film. What background we’re given on them is gleaned from conversation and comments overheard. We don’t really need to have somebody tell us about them, because we already know them. They’re us. Just ordinary people going about their day. And whether they were on the flight or on the ground, trying desperately to figure out what’s going on, their lives were irrevocably changed.
I’m not going to lie. This movie is hard to watch, especially in the last thirty minutes when we’re exclusively on United 93, watching as the passengers call friends and family and try to figure out what to do. Will everything be all right if they sit tight and wait for the hijackers’ demands? Or should they fight back and try to take back the plane?
We see as they find out about the planes hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as it dawns on them that the hijacking is part of something bigger. We watch as these strangers come together to formulate a plan, and loan out cell phones so others can call friends and family to say good-bye and I love you.
United 93 isn’t just a good movie. It’s a great one. It’s a fantastically-made drama, straightforward, tasteful and respectful, intense and emotionally moving. Quality is not the decision maker here. It’s the subject matter.
September 11 isn’t something any of us want to relive. Hell, we already lived through it once and that’s one time too many. But maybe it is time for us to take it out, dust it off, and look back at that day, really look at it. Maybe it’s time for us to stop being scared. Maybe it’s time for us to realize that there are some things in this world that are out of our control, but like those on that fated flight, we can decide whether to sit by or take a stand.
Not everybody’s going to be ready or willing to do that. But if you are, United 93 is more than worth your time.
From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies. This is one of the reviews I originally wrote during that time.