United 93

United 93

*****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Taking no prisoners in the fictional sense, Paul Greengrass comes as close as maybe to uncovering what might have happened in the only highjacked plane not to hit its target on 9/11. Even though you know the outcome, even though the memory is still raw, even though the war on terror, with all its bloody chaos, was Washington's response and the heart aches for closure, this film is a beacon of integrity in an area that so easily could have been sugared and spiced with the visual equivalent of George W Bush's rhetoric.

Treating it as a docudrama, Greengrass avoids every known cliche of the disaster movie, which means he doesn't provide pocket biogs of the leading passengers, or cut back to distraught families at home, responding to CNN's breaking news. Using a handheld camera, he crowds the screen with the essential gut rush of panic and confusion, whether in the plane, or at the air traffic control centre, where many of the men who were there on the day play themselves.

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This emphasis on realism is reflected in the editing, cinematography, soundtrack and acting - almost without exception these faces are new and unknown, adding to their credibility. There is nothing flash about Greengrass. He makes Spielberg's Munich look pure theatre.

Opening with the four highjackers, as they wait and pray in a hotel room, he refuses to indulge the emotions, or explain the language of the air traffic controllers - you feel that if he had his way he would have dispensed with subtitles altogether. The sparse dialogue between pilots and aircrew, and the occasional snatches of in-flight small talk, is classically banal.

Despite this anti-Hollywood approach to a truly shocking event, he maintains a fierce and continuous tension. The nervousness of the highjackers is infectious and you sense an uncertainty in the mind of their leader. On the ground, as the twin towers at the World Trade Center, New York, are hit - at first, they think, by "a light aircraft" - and two other planes are missing, presumed jacked, a terrible realisation - is this war? is this invasion? - takes hold. The air force scramble unarmed fighter jets to intercept and they fly off in the wrong direction. No one can find the President, or Vice-President. They need clarification on rules of engagement. Can they shoot these planes down?

Meanwhile, on United 93, some of the passengers take a decision ("No one's going to help us. We've got to do it") and they attack their attackers. The feeling of release is overwhelming, like mainlining adrenaline, and the silence that follows echoes the last words of the leading highjacker: "God is good."

Minutes later, you start breathing again.

Reviewed on: 02 Jun 2006
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A stunning recreation of events surrounding the hijacking of United Airlines flight 93 on the 11th of September, 2001.
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