Before bringing his frenetic touch to the spy thriller The Bourne Supremacy, British director Paul Greengrass made a movie called Bloody Sunday, which offered forth a realistic recreation of the 1972 civil rights march in Northern Ireland that devolved into a massacre. (It’s the same incident that spawned U2’s anthemic “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”) In a gut-wrenching merging of style and material, Greengrass explores many of these same themes in United 93, his grief-soaked telling of the one hijacked plane on Sept. 11 that didn’t reach its intended target.
Frankly incapable of being judged on any level as a regular film — there’s an accompanying tension and trepidation that permeates any viewing, and it’s certainly the quietest audience you’ll ever sit through an opening credit sequence with — United 93 nevertheless stands as a singular achievement, although whether it’s one that people will want to re-experience remains to be seen. (Ten percent of its opening weekend grosses will be donated to a special memorial fund).
The story of Flight 93 and its eventual crash-landing in a Pennsylvania field is of course a completely known one, but instead of hiring well-known actors, Greengrass smartly went through a careful audition process — inclusive of meetings with the family members of victims — and cast an ensemble of mostly unknowns (film aficionados may recognize maybe three or four faces), all in an attempt to make the recreation of the events more believable. He further advanced this delicate agenda by also utilizing many of the flight controllers and actual governmental agents, including FAA National Operations Officer Ben Sliney, on duty that day. This gives United 93 an eerie sense of recreation, of sometimes almost being found footage.
While some of the on-board specifics are speculative, much is known, and United 93 artfully establishes the panic of all parties involved, as internecine governmental confusion over precise rules of engagement and just what sort of situation they’re dealing overwhelms — if only for a few hours — the best of everyone’s professionality and ability. There’s a naturally mounting tension to the chronological timeline, of course, but also some bits that many people might have forgotten, including the fact that the hijacking of Flight 93 took place after the first two planes hit the World Trade Center, and that there was much FAA confusion over the fate of American 11, and whether it had hit the WTC or was still in the air. All of this roiling chaos and uncertainty is abetted by the movie’s claustrophobic sense of space, masterfully captured by Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s trademark visceral camerawork and further anchored by a tactfully inconspicuous score from John Powell.
What some will seize upon — more than likely as a general feeling more than anything else — is the breadth of United 93’s scope and how that may on a personal level blunt, if not the movie’s emotional currency, then its “rightness,” let’s say. In cutting back and forth between Flight 93, various air traffic control centers and the military command center, Greengrass juxtaposes the story of the doomed airliner against the frantic efforts of those charge, shifting the heavy bulk of the action to the plane only in the last 35 minutes or so. Many filmgoers may be left wanting more details about the passengers, of whom we learn very little. It’s certainly true that in offering this wider context, we lose some focus and grasp of the putative focal point.
Despite its title, this isn’t “merely” the story of United 93. This tack is somewhat a function of necessity, though, as certain passengers’ life rights were sold to an A&E telepic, Flight 93, that bows on DVD next week, and others understandably were leery of any cinematic exploration of the subject. To focus more upon or tell the story of only one or two passengers, though, is to risk minimizing the collective heroic and moral stance of those aboard United 93.There’s a saying that truth is found in jest and death, and the latter portion of that sentiment is born out here. While the turmoil of that day marks the film on a certain level as a vicarious glimpse into hell via those that lost their lives, United 93 is also a slowly building collage of dread. Emotionally tough but completely riveting and absorbing in its verisimilitude, United 93 doesn’t suffer an exploitative impulse or frame. It is challenging and demanding filmmaking, not for everyone. But it is honest. (Universal, R, 110 mins.)