United 93 (2006)

Director: Paul Greengrass

Conspiracy theories abound when it comes to what actually transpired on the fateful morning of 9/11.  I have come across several articles speculating the causes behind the tragedy. These ranged from reasonable to utterly nonsensical.  But what is accepted almost unanimously is that the passengers on United 93 somehow gathered courage and stood together in adverse circumstances, possibly saving many lives and also inspiring others for years to come. It is this story of valor, driven out of desperation and the sheer instinct for survival, which forms the central theme of the Paul Greengrass movie.

On a seemingly normal sunny day, passengers board a routine flight at the Newark Airport bound to San Francisco. Unknown to the passengers, there are, in their midst, four terrorists who would stop at nothing to achieve their target. The flight take-off gets delayed due to high air traffic, and in the meantime the North Tower is hit by a flight 11. This induces shock and confusion in the air traffic control room as well as in the air command base as no one really knows what exactly is going on. It is only after a second plane hits the South Tower that the authorities get a whiff of the co-ordinated terrorist attack. They are too late in realizing that they are dealing with multiple hijackings. Alert messages are sounded off to all the flights but in vain, as another plane crashes into the Pentagon, while the fourth plane United 93 is successfully taken over by the hijackers. The moments following the take-over are gut-wrenching as we come face-to-face with our basest fear, the fear of death. Amidst this fear and turmoil, the passengers discover unity and courage and dare to fight back, very nearly managing to regain control of the cockpit. Alas, it is not to be. We know the rest.

The subject matter is extremely sensitive and even the slightest of errors on the part of the filmmaker would have ended up being labeled as exploitative. But Paul Greengrass has taken every care to make this film with utmost sincerity and sensitivity. He does not take any sides – neither are the terrorists glorified nor are the heroics of the passengers given the typical Hollywood treatment (read Die Hard). In fact, the portrayal of the terrorists as well as the innocent passengers is very impressive. The hijackers are not unnecessarily demonized and they are shown to experience anxiety and fear just like all others in the plane (for different reasons, though). The passengers simply seem to be ordinary people who unfortunately get stuck in a hellish situation. Many of the actors including the flight stewardesses and the people in the air traffic control, most notably Ben Sliney, play themselves in the movie, and this lends some level of authenticity and realism to the film.

The director completely decides to do away with character and development and nearly every character is given equal importance. There is no single person in the entire cast whose background is known and who is projected as the archetypical hero and this indeed helps in making United 93 stand out from other such films belonging to the genre. For the most part, we have the feeling that we are actually watching a real incident, that too from very close quarters. Greengrass makes you a part of the action and when the proceedings take a dreadful turn, it hits you hard.

The cast comprises of unknown faces that do not come with the past baggage of image and stereotype. And the performances of the actors hardly disappoint. In the last half hour, you see the proceedings from their point of view, and to their credit, their body language, demeanour and expressions make the tension palpable. Also, their transformation from being passive, frightened prisoners to finally deciding to take control of the situation is very believable.

The pace slackens a bit in the first hour with some repetitive scenes, but Greengrass’ experience in documentary filmmaking holds him in good stead in the second hour. The unsteady camerawork, unconventional choice of actors and the knowledge that the events shown on film actually happened create a very disturbing and traumatic atmosphere. The scene of the sudden and violent take-over by the hijackers is particularly unsettling. The scenes that follow are no less distressing. But the last few reels make us root for the passengers and pray for their life even though we know how all of this ended.

Intense, and sometimes difficult to watch, United 93 is a heartfelt tribute to the unwavering human spirit, witnessed in the direst of situations. Watch it, but only when you are ready for it.