United 93 may be the most amazing film I have ever seen. It's certainly among the most intense, and most tragic.
I just got home from the theater, and my stomach is *still* churning in knots. The entire theater was silent throughout, half in tears, half in shock. One person got ill during the film and vomited in the hallway out of the theater. By the end, applause erupted, although I couldn't bring myself to clap. To those who said, "too soon," I say it's a shame that we had to wait five years to see something like United 93.
Calling United 93 a movie isn't accurate. It's like a documentary, or reality television. Even that doesn't cover it, as in either a documentary or reality TV, the subject knows there is a camera present, and behaves accordingly. In United 93, director Paul Greengrass is able to capture *life* as it happens. Unfortunately, the film just happens to "capture" the events of the worst day in modern American memory.
The first half of the film is mainly preoccupied with the discovery of the hijackings in some of the nation's nerve centers-- air traffic control stations, the FAA operations center, the Northeast Air Defense Sector. Confusion reigns as first one, then two, then more planes drop off the radar. After the World Trade Center gets hit, tension begins to increase, and despite the best efforts of many number of professionals-- many of the people on screen aren't actors, but the actual people who manned the desks on 9/11-- nothing can be done to stop the assault.
It's odd watching the film. The audience all knows how this story ends. At times I found myself wanting to reach through the screen and slap somebody, tell them which planes have been hijacked, tell them to ignore all the red tape and chaos and cut to the chase, stop the madness before it gets any worse. Unfortunately, the film, like the events of that day, has an inexorable, chilling progress towards the inevitable. One plane, then two planes, then three planes are going to crash into their targets, and nothing anyone can do is going to stop that.
United 93 presents an illuminating, and in my experience, accurate portrayal of what we call "complex systems." We build complex systems to handle the mundane details of our daily lives, and they respond well to mundane problems. But something like September 11th overwhelms the system. There is no one person to blame-- they're all good people, all doing their jobs to the best of their abilities, but the problem is simply too big to handle. United 93 should give pause to people who put their faith in complex systems to protect us. Whether it's faith in our airport screeners, or our border security, or our intelligence agencies, study of 9/11 reminds us that catastrophic failure often goes hand-in-hand with catastrophes.
During this time in United 93, we get to watch the terrorists and passengers of Flight 93 intersect. We don't get to "know" anyone-- there are no characters here-- we only get to watch. The passengers seem like nice enough people, but so do the people next to you on any plane flight, or subway ride, or bus trip. Greengrass's style of accentuating the mundane details of life don't just serve to make United 93 seem "real," it also creates the same horrifying contrast that shocked so many people on September 11th. These weren't soldiers trained to handle-- and expect-- violence. These were everyday people, people going about their daily lives, totally innocent and unaware of their impending death at the hands of terrorism. One moment, their flight attendant is serving them coffee with a smile, the next moment their flight attendant's throat is being slashed in a spray of blood.
In some ways, here in 2006, we are more fortunate than the passengers of Flight 93: we *know* we are at war. Well, some of us, at least. These people, they knew nothing until it was too late.
Much has been written about Greengrass's "even-handed" portrayal of the terrorists. Rest assured, there is no moralizing or justification here. In keeping with the film's style, we see the terrorists as they were-- radical Islamists bent on their mission of destruction. I am no more sympathetic to my enemies because I see them sweat in nervous fear before they begin to kill, or because I hear a jihadi call a loved one to tell her goodbye. It's like the stupid song-- "Russians love their children, too." All fine and good, but I don't care who they love once they start killing people next to me.
As we only have snippets of what happened during Flight 93, whether from cel phones or cockpit recordings, United 93 inevitably has to make stylistic choices in his portrait of the flight. No one will ever know whether Greengrass chose correctly-- whether Tom Burnett was as influential as he's shown here, or whether Jeremy Glick used his judo talents in charging the cockpit, or whether the passengers ultimately succeeding in breaking through the cockpit door.
What we do know is that the passengers fought back, and that an empty field in Pennsylvania wasn't on Al Qaeda's target list. Given what we know, Greengrass made a movie that "feels" as real as it could probably be.
And my God, the hijacking, and subsequent revolt, are positively brutal. United 93 is every bit as gut-wrenching as you might imagine. The audience *knows* all these people are going to die. The passengers eventually come to realize that for themselves. There's no speechifying, no false bravado, no "Hollywood moments." Just terribly sad phone calls to the people they love, a desperate search for anything and everything that can be used as weapons, and then: action. There's a slim hope that one passenger may be able to pilot the plane, but you can tell that the passengers don't really care one way or the other. The ensuing struggle is every bit as insane as one might imagine, a fight to the death that looks, sounds, and feels real. Throughout United 93 you frequently forget you're watching a movie, and no more than at the conclusion of the film.
So, what to make of it? Is there a "message" to United 93?
Many reviewers are calling United 93 an empty vessel. They say that its documentarian, "you are there"-style renders it neutral, renders it bereft of anything to say about September 11th. That ultimately, what you take out of the movie is what you brought into it, i.e. your current, circa 2006 opinion of the events of that day, and everything that's happened since then-- the wars, the politics, etc.
I think that conclusion is largely true, as Greengrass just gives us the events of that day and nothing else, no framing devices to put us on a side of the debate.
That said, how anyone can watch United 93 and walk away from it without the realization that September 11th was a declaration of war against not just the United States, but every American-- how anyone can do that escapes me. You want to spend all your time arguing the details about how best to fight back against these evil men, that's all fine and good. United 93 shows us that at least for the passengers and crew of one plane, there was no time for a parlor debate, there was no time to anguish over deliberations, there was no time for "nuance" and equivocation. They were attacked, they fought back, they died. . . and they certainly saved countless others from a fate similar to those in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
They were heroes, they are heroes, and hopefully enough people see United 93 to remember and honor who these people were.
United 93 is the best movie of 2006 so far, and I can't fathom how any film this year can be more powerful than this one.
Seriously, This Movie Is A Punch In The Gut: Think of the movie that made an emotional wreck of you the most-- Schindler's List, Old Yeller, Love Story, whatever.
Multiply that by ten. Then another ten.
The grind begins at the very beginning of the film. I was shaking my legs for a long part of it in nervous anticipation. Once the planes start getting hijacked, things started getting worse for me.
Then they cut to the CNN footage of the Pentagon smoking.
It hit me-- I was in that building on September 7th, 2001. I'm returning to work in that building on Monday.
Then, the passengers of Flight 93 began their phone calls to make their goodbyes. It took everything I had in me to keep from losing it then.
I won't lie to you-- United 93 is the toughest film I've ever sat through, tougher than anything.
But it was worth it.