Written and Directed by: Paul Greengrass
Rated: R
Running Time: 1hr 51mins

“To make the movie as authentic as possible, director Paul Greengrass cast a number of real-life participants in the events of September 11, 2001, to play themselves. The principal “real-life role” in the movie is Ben Sliney, the FAA’s National Operations Manager, who made the decision on 9/11 to shut down all air traffic operations in the United States. Sliney had just been promoted to the National Operations Manager position, and September 11, 2001 was his first day on the job. That explains the applause from the FAA flight monitors when he walks into the control center in Herndon, VA, at the beginning of the movie. Several officials who were with Sliney in the FAA control room on 9/11 play themselves, including Tobin Miller, Rich Sullivan, and Tony Smith. In the scenes at Newark Airport, several air traffic controllers who were in the Newark control tower on 9/11, and who witnessed the air attacks on the World Trade Center, play themselves. At the air traffic monitoring centers in Boston, New York, and Cleveland, the air traffic monitors are all played by real-life air traffic controllers, including several who were at these locations on 9/11, and who monitored the hijacked flights. At the Northeast Air Defense Command Center (NEADS) in Rome, NY, most of the military personnel are played by real-life military air traffic controllers, including several people, notably Major James Fox, who was at NEADS on 9/11. Also, on United Flight 93, the actors playing the pilots in the movie are real-life airline pilots, and the flight attendants are played by real-life flight attendants, some of whom work for United Airlines.” -IMDB

Writer/Director Paul Greengrass’ film UNITED 93 was released on April 8, 2006, which may have been a little too close to the events it recreates for most people to handle. The tragedy of 9/11 occurred only five years earlier and the memories of that day were still pretty fresh in people’s minds. The film isn’t an easy one to watch and that’s because its purpose isn’t to entertain. Much like the movies PLATOON and SCHINDLER’S LIST, it was made as a much-needed reminder of a situation we all hope never repeats itself. Greengrass effectively puts the viewer in the middle of a frightening situation, reminding us of the realities of that day in 2001. His camera is there only as a silent witness to the events that unfold, placing viewers in the middle of it all as observers of what happened. UNITED 93 pays a powerful tribute to those the country lost on that day while also being a film that is important to see so that we will never forget the dangerous lesson that history has to offer.

The story takes place on Sept 11, 2001, both aboard United Flight 93 and inside the air-traffic controller buildings on the day that two airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center as an act of terrorism. United 93 was one of 4 hijacked planes and the only one that didn’t reach its destination as the fourth crashed into the Pentagon. It’s an intense and emotional film about heroism that reenacts what may have happened when passengers on that fateful flight rose up against the terrorist that took control of the plane and tried to take it back.

The strength of the film comes from the attitude the filmmakers had towards the material. This isn’t a traditional “Based on a true story” project. Some might expect the customary approach where audiences are given three-dimensional characters to relate to as they struggle through the events of the day. The reality is that nobody who wasn’t there will ever fully understand what the people who went through it really experienced, especially on an emotional level. Greengrass doesn’t even try to make viewers understand. Who these people really are is kept at a distance and the audience is only given enough information to see them as everyday people. The film isn’t about a deep understanding of their feelings and watching character arcs as they come to terms with their emotions. It is about a group of strangers who are bound to a collective fate and it allows us to bear witness to the events in a very real and powerful way.

Greengrass employs a filmmaking technique that allows the viewers to feel as if what is unfolding in front of them is the real thing. A sense of truthfulness in what is being played out is important to make the audience feel the frightening reality of the day.  Greengrass and his editors do an amazing job assembling the footage together in a way that makes the chaos that they are recreating feel completely genuine. A combination of unsteady camera work and sometimes erratic editing adds to the tension. We don’t get full scenes of characters conversing to try and understand the situation. The movie doesn’t move seamlessly from plot point A to plot point B. Greengrass keeps things moving with partial scenes that jump back and forth creating a level of confusion similar to that of the day.  We get pieces of conversations as the people on the ground struggle to come to grips with the situation as well as those on the plane decide on their own fate. Greengrass expertly presents the situation in the best and most respectful way possible given the information that the filmmakers had of how it really went down.

One of the strengths of the film comes from the brilliance of the casting. There isn’t a recognizable actor (at least at the time of the film’s making) being used. This is an important element that enhances the viewer’s ability to see these performers as nobody other than the people being represented. Using a big-name actor may have been too distracting and a constant reminder that this was only a movie. Greengrass also made the bold decision to use some of the real-life participants from air traffic control to play themselves, as well as real-life airline pilots to play the pilots and real-life flight attendants to play the flight attendants, which adds to the authenticity of the performances.

UNITED 93 is a tribute to the pain and suffering experienced on that horrible day in 2001. It’s a movie that’s hard to watch because of the pure emotional power set upon us by the realistic tone presented. Director Paul Greengrass has accomplished something that will go down in cinema history, not as entertainment but as important viewing. The film draws no conclusions and doesn’t try to discover why what happened on that day happened. It doesn’t offer us the traditional characters whose stories we follow in intimate detail. Its goal is only to allow us to observe the events, recreating the panic and confusion so that viewers will learn from what happened in a way that they will never forget.

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