More Human Than Human
United 93 / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | May 15, 2006 | Comments ()
Like most everyone, I can remember that day with disturbing clarity. It was a sunny Tuesday morning, and my school’s cross country-team had finished the morning’s workout and driven to the cafeteria for some breakfast. We strolled in a little after 8:00 in the morning, Central Standard Time, our clothes and hair slick with fresh perspiration, and stood in the middle of the half-empty lunchroom with unfilled trays. The few people at the college who had bothered to get up were all standing next to cafeteria workers, cooks, and dishwashers, staring up at the overhanging televisions. No one spoke.
When the initial shock had passed, most of us got our eggs and waffles and sat down, buzzing with the discussion of what had happened; of who had done this and why. Was it a response to American foreign policy in the Middle East? Was it revenge for Ariel Sharon’s reactionary movement in Israel? How should we respond militarily? How could someone do such a thing? We were pretentious college sophomores, and we felt so entitled to our thoughts and feelings that ultimately we were just venting our spleens for the sake of doing so. In all honesty, we had no idea what was happening, and like so many others, we ranted and raged and hypothesized about the “big picture,” while forgetting the central human tragedy of it all.
The events of September 11th are the most vital and epochal of our time; the U.S administration’s response to it the most contentious issue in the world today. But forgetting the who’s and the why’s, it was a story of human beings and their actions in the face of momentous events; their power and fear. Luckily, director Paul Greengrass knows better than to make the mistake of ignoring this.
The story of Flight 93 is perhaps the most poignant of the attacks, the one in which the passengers actually managed to thwart the terrorists from carrying out their mission. It’s at least a tale that lends itself well to dramatic recreation. For the most part there’s been an unspoken moratorium on filming the events of 9/11 in cinema, with both filmmakers and audiences balking under the sheer weight of the events, the no-win situation of filming such an unspeakable tragedy. Greengrass’ United 93 is the first large-scale retelling to make it onto the big screen (Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is due later this year). Perhaps because he’s aware of the immense sensitivity required for such a project, or perhaps because his own approach to filmmaking is simple verisimilitude, Greengrass (who also wrote) crafts United 93 with painstaking accuracy, relying heavily on the 9/11 Commission Report. He also spent time with the civilian and military personnel involved in that day’s events and the friends and families of the passengers themselves.
Greengrass’ portrait of those events mimics his earlier film Bloody Sunday — a docudrama recreation of the 1972 massacre of protestors in Northern Ireland. His method is simply to present the events as if the spectators themselves were holding cameras; a third-person view that bounces in first-person visceral motion. Combining this with relatively unknown actors, actual flight attendants and other personnel as extras, and complete understatement in the performances, United 93 achieves a stark and brutal realism.
The day begins with the four terrorists praying in their hotel rooms, reveling in the quiet respite before setting out to Boston’s Logan Airport. For men who are so easy to despise for the actions they commit, they’re presented here with almost unnerving sympathy. We see them pensively sitting in their beds, praying and reciting passages from the Qur’an and hugging one another before they leave. The de facto leader of the group, who will later take control of the plane, even shows a glimmer of hesitance and humanity before the inevitable occurs. Moments before boarding the plane, he murmurs “I love you” to someone on his cell phone. We may hate them for the atrocities they commit, but it’s pointedly difficult to hate who they are.
The other passengers and flight attendants are shown simply going through the motions; some slouch in their chairs; some rifles through newspapers; many more chat absently on their phones. Greengrass lets us watch all of this — the daily minutiae of people who don’t know they’re about to die. The machinations are familiar to anyone who’s been in an airport but, under the foreboding pall of the proceedings we know will take place, viewing it is grim and sad.
For the most part, the events unfurl in real-time, with Greengrass jockeying between the claustrophobic setting on Flight 93 and FAA headquarters, as air traffic controllers slowly become aware of what is happening. The tension and pace continue to feel real, and are almost unbearable when they unfold amidst people who are too shocked and unprepared to really respond (who would be?). The hijacking of 93 occurs only minutes after the first attacks on the WTC and Pentagon were widely known, making it the fourth and last attack to get underway. When it finally occurs, after an hour of furtive glances and balking amongst the terrorists, it’s almost a relief — terrifying as it is.
Once the attackers swarm the cockpit, killing a passenger, attendant, and the two pilots, the previously unassuming dread gives way to calamitous disarray. Little violence is shown directly, yet it’s excruciating, given the verity of presentation. Once the passengers begin to comprehend the situation, aided by cell-phone calls to their families, their fear finally turns to resolve, and they set out to do what we know they did. The speed and haphazardness with which these events take place would seem unbelievable if they hadn’t really happened, making it all the more remarkable to witness. Ultimately, no one knows what happened in the final moments of United 93, but given the fastidiousness of Greengrass’ conjecture, it may as well be this.
I’m hard pressed to remember having a theatrical experience quite like United 93, which successfully builds tension throughout the entirety of its running time, literally not relenting until that final, cataclysmic moment. The fact that the depiction was based on the horrors of September 11th could by itself provide the viewer with enough apprehension to feel affected, but what Greengrass does with this tension is significant for its humanity. Eschewing politics and patriotism, this story presents heroism in an all too human fashion. I can’t remember any given character’s specific name, or many noteworthy lines of dialogue, and the passengers’ final act of courage is ultimately no more evocative than the scenes of old men crying or a woman giving a young girl her cell phone to make that final call — but taken as a whole, it’s devastating.
This film has not arrived without contention. Many reviewers are speaking openly of their ambivalence toward a movie about such sensitive subject matter. I have no idea whether or not it was appropriate to use this story to make a movie; to relive that epic day of horror is more than I’d ask of anyone even remotely involved in it, but Greengrass’ respect for the victims is encouraging, at the least, and his implicit statement about the human condition is commanding. Ultimately, the men who hijack the plane, those who watch it happen, and those who live through it are no different than you or I. They’re human beings; their fear and sadness and rage are palpable in the face of events they might have created, but have no way of controlling. United 93 is a film that quietly swells with power around a subject base we can all relate to, and it will absolutely break your heart.
Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.