Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
There is a particular film I will only watch about once a year because even though I see it as a great piece of work that affects me prominently with each viewing, it’s not a film I need to watch repeatedly. That’s because when I watch it once in a long while, its impact doesn’t leave me.
That film is “United 93,” a film directed by Paul Greengrass that takes us back to the day we faced evil so early in the 21st century: September 11, 2001. But the film is not here to exploit the horrible memories of that infamous date or take advantage of the guilt the survivors feel. It’s not a melodrama—it’s a grounded, documentary-like, fact-based account of the reactions of people witnessing horrific things in New York City as well as the events that transpired on United Flight 93, one of the hijacked airplanes. On top of that, the film is here for a very important reason: on the day America faced terror, there was still room for courage and heroism.
Three planes were hijacked by terrorists. One struck the Pentagon. Two struck the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The fourth, Flight 93, didn’t reach its target, the Capitol Building, due to the heroic actions of its passengers, who revolted against their captors. This film tells that story on that plane (from its boarding to its inevitable end), as well as witness-based accounts of people in other places such as NORAD and air traffic control centers in New York and Boston. It’s through these people we see situations advance, and it’s through the people on board Flight 93 we see others advance. And that’s it—we don’t see any hints of a conspiracy theory or patriotism or “the big picture”; we simply witness settings transpire, from the witnessing of the World Trade Center being destroyed to the pressing race against time to make important decisions (such as closing off US airspace) to the frightening hijacking of Flight 93 to the passengers’ rebellious attempt to gain control to its unfortunate (and inevitable) demise.
“United 93” is technically perfect. It strives on realism and feels like it’s really happening, which makes it even more haunting when you find yourself living what was by far the darkest day of the 21st century. Thanks to director Greengrass’ choice of using the documentary approach, you get a pretty good idea of what it must have been like seeing these terrible things for the first time, because you feel like you’re there. In addition to that, there are no recognizable actors to be found here (…except Olivia Thirlby, who plays one of the Flight 93 passengers, but this was before she developed a solid acting career). And the people portrayed in the film aren’t stock disaster-movie types. They’re just people, with no character biographies/histories. We only get to know these people as if they were strangers on that airplane or inside the National Air Traffic Center or the airport and so on, and only the slightest traits are developed. That also works in the film’s favor.
I want to use the portrayal of the destruction of the World Trade Center as an example of how this film works. When you first see the unforgettable image of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in smoke, your first instinct is to gasp, as you recognize what it means. This film perfectly portrays how the reactions must have been for the people seeing it for the first time, from afar. When you first see the smoking Tower in this film, it’s from a distance, through a window. An airport worker notices, and simply says to his co-worker in a somewhat awed manner, “Hey, look at the Trade Center.” As more people notice, there’s the amount of confused murmuring that grows into frightened exclamations when they get closer visuals on TV news. The fear escalates and grows stronger as they see another plane strike the South Tower, which results in the expected reaction, and it feels as real as when it actually happened. This film made me forget I was watching a film.
I didn’t see “United 93” on a big screen. I was even afraid to see it until five years ago, when I rented it on DVD. But A) watching it on a small screen still left an impact on me, and B) even though I was afraid to see it because I knew what it was about, much like people in 2006 who felt the release of this film was “too soon,” I saw the importance of why we needed this film. As much as we would like to, we will never forget the things we saw on 9/11/2001, whether on TV news or even firsthand. But we should never forget what the passengers of Flight 93 died for: our country. They were ordinary people who faced a horrifying situation, and together they stood to strike back against the terrorists or die trying. If not for them, the terrorists would have used the plane to strike the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Instead, the plane crashed in a field, as the passengers couldn’t get control of the plane as they reached the cockpit.
“United 93” is a film I will never forget, and aside from the film being powerfully haunting in the ways it portrays the tragedies of 9/11, maybe that’s why I choose to watch it only once a year. Its meaning and reason for being stays with me as time goes on. But I do choose to watch it occasionally to remind myself that on the day America encountered terror, there were still ordinary people who rose to the occasion and foiled a terrorist plot.