"United 93" is not an easy flight to board. This staggering, draining film is exceptionally accomplished but extremely difficult to watch. It turns out to be easier to admire from whatever distance you can manage than to embrace with any kind of emotional intimacy. This may have been filmmaker Paul Greengrass' intention, but only up to a point.
United 93, a Boeing 757 headed from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco, was the last of four planes hijacked by Islamic terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. It was also the only one that didn't hit its target, likely the U.S. Capitol building. The flight's 40 passengers and crew, aware of the fate of the three other planes, fought back against their quartet of armed captors. As a result, the big jet crashed with complete loss of life not in Washington, D.C., but on a field near Shanksville, Pa.
Though even cockpit voice recorders don't reveal exactly what happened on United 93, Greengrass was intent on getting that story, as well as the surrounding 9/11 drama it informed, as accurate as he could, even at the risk of creating a sense of dread in potential viewers. Greengrass and his team conducted more than 100 face-to-face interviews with the passengers' families and friends as well as key civilian and military personnel.
Working this way is familiar territory for the filmmaker. Known in Hollywood primarily as the director of the successful sequel "The Bourne Supremacy," Greengrass spent a decade as a top British documentarian. And his spectacular "Bloody Sunday" so powerfully conjures up a 1972 day when British troops opened fire on unarmed civil rights marchers in Derry, Northern Ireland, you feel you are there with them, personally experiencing the awful inevitability of history gone wrong.
It's a mark of Greengrass' unequaled gift for believably re-creating reality that, once seen, it's impossible to get "United 93" out of your mind, no matter how much you may want to. Shot by longtime Ken Loach collaborator Barry Ackroyd and strikingly put together by previous Greengrass editors Clare Douglas, Christopher Rouse and Richard Pearson, this film uses second-skin camera placement and rapid, purposeful cutting to convincingly put us inside this complex narrative. This is a film that wrings you out completely, makes you feel you have lived the story along with the participants. Up to a point.
Interestingly enough, "United 93" begins with a close-up of one of the four terrorists, caught in a moment of nervous early morning prayer that ends when a colleague tells him, "It's time."
Then we go to the security line at Newark Airport, where passengers, some of whom are headed for this particular flight, patiently wait. They're ordinary people about to enter history in the most terrible way, about to understand the full import of the celebrated line from the medieval English play "Everyman": "Oh Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind."
As heavy traffic delays United 93's departure, the film cuts back and forth between the cabin, where the passengers make small talk and the crew deals with the mechanics of preparation, to several air traffic control centers on the East Coast as well as the Federal Aviation Administration's operations command center in Herndon, Va.
With the horror that goes with knowing more than the characters, we watch as the nightmare slowly emerges from its dark lair. First the controllers, then their bosses, then the military operations folks at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) realize that not one but several hijackings are taking place simultaneously. Greengrass is especially good at conveying the urgency of individuals desperately playing catch-up with a situation they don't have a prayer of getting out in front of.
Finally, about an hour into the film and after a possible reconsideration by leader Ziad Jarrah (Kahlid Abdalla, like the rest of the quartet an actor based in the U.K.), the United 93 terrorists strike. If you have been dreading these moments of panic, hysteria and violent fanatical rage, they are in truth as horrifying as you've imagined. While no one will ever die again at the World Trade Center or on United 93 (the airline changed the flight number), most of us still go up in airplanes, and that makes these moments especially agitating.
Because theirs is the last plane taken, the passengers on United 93 know, via clandestine phone calls to family and friends, what their fate is likely to be. "This is a suicide mission, we have to do something," one passenger (the film is determined to identify almost no one by name) says. And so a plan to storm the cockpit and try and gain control of their collective fate takes shape.
In addition to the editing and camera techniques he perfected in "Bloody Sunday," Greengrass went to unprecedented lengths to make "United 93" seem as real as possible. Echoing the working methods of Mike Leigh, Greengrass married deep immersion in character with an intense period of improvisation that included having the actors use the two weeks before shooting began to repeatedly improv the entire 91-minute flight in real time.
Greengrass also made sure that none of the dozens of actors used in "Flight 93" had a recognizable face. The performers look so ordinary, in fact, that without specialized knowledge they can't be told apart from one another or from the handful of real people among the controllers and NEADS personnel who play themselves. As if to prove that point, the character who makes the biggest impression in "United 93" is one of those real-life ringers, Ben Sliney, the man who was in charge of the FAA command center.
More than that, while "United 93's" press material includes 26 black-bordered pages of heartfelt biographies of the real flight's passengers and crew written by their survivors, it does not have a single actor bio in it, a first in my experience.
The idea behind all this seems to be the notion of having a group rather than an individual protagonist, of presenting "the people" as a kind of collective hero. This may sound Soviet in derivation but it comes squarely out of British documentary tradition. While its tone is different, "United 93" was likely inspired by a revered British doc few Americans have heard of, Humphrey Jennings' 1943 look at London firemen coping with the Blitz, "Fires Were Started." When a British critic calls "Fires" a "celebration of the courage and dignity of ordinary people working together in the shadow of disaster," he could easily have been describing "United 93."
Intellectually, this is an intriguing approach to an issue that, according to a New York Times article by Jere Longman, who wrote a book on United 93, still divides the survivors, some of whom prefer the group approach while others feel that it slights the handful of individuals whom initial news reports singled out for more heroic roles.
This controversy aside, it is of real value to show what real heroism, not the kind with a glossy face that the movie business specializes in, actually looks like. Interestingly enough, that Hollywood tack was taken by "Flight 93," a made-for-TV broadcast of a few months ago. In a briskly competent, conventional and finally less interesting way, "Flight 93" focuses on individuals and spends considerable time with the families on the ground. Though he hadn't yet seen it, Greengrass was referring to this approach when he wrote of his own work, "It's not a film with neat character arcs."
Emotionally, however, it is hard not to feel that "United 93" may have gone too far in the opposite direction. Exceptional though it is, it plays differently than Greengrass might have expected or intended. The problem is not that the film, which could not possibly be more respectful of the families of the victims, is too close chronologically to a painful event, it's that the event, assorted commissions, inquiries and invasions notwithstanding, remains unresolved in a very particular way. To put it more bluntly, despite ceaseless tough talk from Washington — does anyone outside the Beltway actually feel safer because of the war in Iraq? — we as a nation remain frankly scared.
That fear is part of what makes the horror of what happened on that plane vivid enough to overwhelm the cerebral concept of a group hero. To do more than fill us with dread, to reach us at the deepest emotional level, drama needs well-defined protagonists. "Bloody Sunday," in point of fact, had them, and so did "Fires Were Started." Intellectually, we know we should applaud the marvels "United 93" has accomplished, and we do. But it is a film envisioned as a monument, a memorial tribute, and in our hearts we want something more. "United 93" should have been made now, when memories and passions are still fresh, but it may play better in the future. If we have one.