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UNITED 93 (2006)

United 93 Starring: Becky London, Cheyenne Jackson, Ben Sliney. Director and Screenwriter: Paul Greengrass.

United 93
is probably the most important film of the past decade, easily throwing everything else Iíve seen lately (no matter how much I may love them) into trivia.  Itís a wrenching film; it grabs your guts from the start and doesnít let go long after the final credits have rolled.  Once itís over, itís hard to imagine watching anything else, or at least watching anything and feeling involved.  Giant gorillas, teenage wizards, hobbits and spaceships all seem pretty unimportant in its wake.

The chooses a small canvas for its story, focusing mostly on the passengers and crew of United 93, as well as various traffic control and military facilities; the greater context of the events of September 11 are not touched upon.   In fact, one of the overriding elements of the film is confusion; aside from the four hijackers (who are kept at armís length) no one, anywhere, seems to know whatís going on, and there is a lot of effort on the ground to find out whatís happening. 

Another, greater element is heroism.   The passengers of United 93 are just ordinary people, but learning of the other attacks, they decide they must become more than ordinary.  They gather news from sky phones and hatch a plan to take back the plane, though they have no qualified pilots; they know whatís going to happen to them and they are terrified of dying, but they know there is a greater evil at work and they have a chance to stop it.   Which they did, at the cost of their lives.   Heroes are those who react against circumstances seemingly greater than themselves, and I have no problem attaching the word to the passengers and crew of United 93.

As a film, itís nearly flawless.  A minor caveat concerns the various discussions aboard the flight about future plans among the passengers and crew (before events begin).  We, in the audience, know that none of these plans ever came to fruition, and it seems slightly cheapening to include them here.   I emphasize, though, that this is a very minor gripe.

The film is shot in a rapid-fire documentary style, which takes some getting used to.  Thereís a lot of hand-held camera, rack-focusing, and uncertain centering in the camera.   At first, itís hard to watch (visually) but in a few minutes I found myself less bothered by it.  On reflection, it seems the perfect way to tell this story, as a fragmented, confused narrative, rather than a broad, stylized overview.  It makes no broad statements and has no ďvisionĒ but it is more powerful for the director stepping back from art.   The cast is excellent throughout, made up (so far as I could tell) of unknowns (several real people involved in the events on the ground play themselves).   There are no ďactingĒ moments, through the temptation must have been hard to resist with such material.  Kudos to the cast for keeping it all frighteningly real.

As mentioned, the film keeps the hijackers at arm's length.  I think this was the right decision; this is a story of ordinary people, not pawns in a clash of ideologies.  

Itís a hard film to watch emotionally.  As I said, itís wrenching, and that seems the best word to describe it.  Knowing how the events played out that day gives it an atmosphere of palpable dread.  

I highly, highly recommend it.   I canít foresee it becoming a giant financial successóitís too painful to watch.   But itís a success nonetheless. 

See it.