4 stars (out of four)
It's foolish to make a movie, write a play, design a building or compose a requiem on the subject of Sept. 11, 2001, with the intention of appealing to everyone. Such an aspiration may sound like a bid for universality, but it's more like an invitation to hacks looking for a way to transform an epoch-defining terrorist act into something inoffensive and placating and marketable.
The superb "United 93," from the British writer-director Paul Greengrass, does not waste time defining the undefinable. Nor does it strain for poetry when, with this story, prose is enough.
The film is lean, harsh and remarkably free of cant. It doesn't waste a single minute of its harrowing 111 minutes. Much of it unfolds in real time on board the aircraft. Virtually all of it ignores the usual tear-jerking and "human interest" pathos. The film leaves the larger interpretive measures and grand insights for 9/11 efforts to come. It was the right way to go: Recent tragic events respond well to the straight and narrow. If the film is a limited sort of masterwork, its stylistic and narrative parameters nonetheless feel right. Greengrass convinces you the story had to be told this way, this soon after the fact.
The events themselves have entered the realm of mythology. Flight 93, departing Newark for San Francisco, carried a light load of passengers. It was one of four planes hijacked that day by members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. The plane was the only one that did not reach its target, which either was the White House or the U.S. Capitol. Thanks to a handful of passengers and crew, the hijackers were overtaken and the plane crashed near Shanksville, Pa., about 150 miles from Washington, D.C. No one survived.
Greengrass treats "United 93" as a procedural, at once coolly considered and white-hot. It begins in the motel room where one of the terrorists murmurs his prayer to Allah. The look on actor Khalid Abdalla's face, a half-second before Greengrass and his inspired editors cut away to the opening credits, reveals a flash of violently conflicted emotions--anguish, terror, religious fervor. In that half-second we glimpse a human being on the verge of a monstrous act. And in the same half-second Greengrass reveals his own documentary-trained powers of observation.
By the time Greengrass arrives at the climax, the intensity is such that you may overlook how shrewdly he has textured the material, based on lengthy and fruitful improvisations. Using a blend of trained actors, real-life airline employees and other non-actors--Federal Aviation Administration operations manager Ben Sliney plays himself, and it's not a small role--"United 93" unfolds like an unusually vivid slice of verite. In many scenes we're eavesdropping on quick, chaotic developments in an air traffic control tower in one city or another. As the planes hit the World Trade Center towers, the panic spreads: How many more hijackers are there? Why isn't the FAA communicating fully with the military, or the White House communicating with the FAA?
Greengrass shoots "United 93" with hand-held cameras, in a hurtling, documentary-on-the-run style familiar from his equally fine "Bloody Sunday" (2002), about an enraging real-life 1972 clash between British soldiers and Irish civil rights protesters. The director lays out a broad canvas without fudging the details or slowing the momentum. There isn't a speck of hooey in this film's nervous system. Daringly, Greengrass does not introduce or even dramatize the key players in the usual expository fashion. No one gets a monologue. Much of the dialogue devolves into what talk show transcriptions describe as "cross-talk." This is a one-character story. The story is the character.
Working with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, Greengrass risks a certain degree of motion sickness in his visual approach. The same went for "Bloody Sunday," and the Greengrass-directed "Bourne Supremacy," an exceptionally peppy popcorn picture. His nervous shooting style and editing rhythm isn't new, and it's very easy to misapply, especially in narrative filmmaking. Yet Greengrass has a knack for it, and "United 93" brakes at the edge of panic-inducing excess. The director is aware of the approach's limitations, and he knows how to modulate. When, near the end, the passengers make their final phone calls to loved ones on the ground the mood shifts, the technique recedes and the farewells (as we soon realize) become the calm before the final storm.
For comparison's and profit's sake, this weekend A&E rebroadcasts its TV-movie version of the same events, "Flight 93." The film is as drecky and sentimental as "United 93" is sobering and vital. To be sure, some will prefer the A&E version's remember-the-Alamo fervor and general moistness. (The "I love you"s and "I'll be strong"s crowd any honest emotional response to the situation.) By contrast "United 93" is almost unrelievedly intense, yet the actors are often glimpsed and overheard on the fly, and they appear not to be acting but simply reacting, convincingly, to a horrifying situation. The heroism this film depicts is real, or at least plays realistically, because Greengrass has the nerve to paint the passenger revolt as hastily planned, almost accidental. These are ordinary people operating in survival mode. And watch how Greengrass and actor David Alan Basche treat passenger Todd Beamer's legendary "Let's roll!" line. The most famous two words in the history of recent airborne disasters are handled simply as a blip in a breathless, escalating sequence of events not easily forgotten, no matter how those events are exploited for political gain, and no matter how often we turn history into popular myth.
Directed and written by Paul Greengrass; cinematography by Barry Ackroyd; edited by Clare Douglas, Christopher Rouse and Richard Pearson; production design by Dominic Watkins; music by John Powell; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lloyd Levin and Greengrass. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:51. MPAA rating: R (for language, and some intense sequences of terror and violence).
Todd Beamer - David Alan Basche
Jeremy Glick - Peter Hermann
Ben Sliney - himself
Ahmed Al Haznawi - Omar Berdouni
Saeed Al Ghamdi - Lewis Alsamari
Ziad Jarrah - Khalid Abdalla