United 93

United 93

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

From the moment the first plane hit the Twin Towers on September the 11th, 2001, it was inevitable that there would be a film made about it, yet many people have protested the idea, saying that it's wrong to make entertainment out of such a powerful and still recent tragedy.

Paul Greengrass' remarkable United 93 reminds us that films are not just about entertainment. Whilst it grips throughout and provides plenty of thrills, the core of the film is communication. In telling the stories of numerous individuals caught up in the events of that fateful day, it allows us to see what happened in human terms and to recover our sense of perspective.

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Opening with the prayers of four young men who know they are going to their deaths, United 93 follows events docu-drama style, the camera wandering around freely as assorted passengers board the plane, air traffic controllers map out routes, etc. There are no passages of exposition here, no convenient discussions in which characters introduce themselves to one another. As in his acclaimed Bloody Sunday, Greengrass makes us an observer at the heart of the action.

Though parts of the course of events are naturally guesswork, a huge amount has been taken directly from records and phone calls, and there is nothing which jars with the sense that one is watching something real - in fact, several of the roles are filled by individuals playing themselves, reliving their experiences for the camera. The sense of involvement and immediacy, which this creates - the story being told in real time - contributes to a powerful build-up of tension. Knowing how it ends does nothing to decrease the power of the film. Added to this are the stories of further catastrophes, which were narrowly avoided as air traffic controllers struggled to cope, and most people will find things here, which are new to them.

In shifting his focus away from the Twin Towers and onto the plane, Greengrass neatly sidesteps much of the intensity of media debate and finds room to describe events in his own manner. Within the plane itself, tight camerawork maintains a real sense of claustrophobia, though the director's technique is most notable for its realism. This is supported by excellent sound editing, which contributes powerfully to the sense of being there.

What really makes the film special, however, are the performances built around its skeletal script. Khalid Abdalla, in particular, stands out as the hijacker terrified of the moment when he must make his move, morally troubled and yet determined to carry out the plan. His complex experience is conveyed without any explanatory dialogue. Likewise the terror and gathering resolution of the passengers is shown as much through facial expression and movement as through speech. The only genuine talking takes place during their last phone calls to loved ones, which are all the more affecting as a result and a fitting tribute to the deceased. The psychological tension between these opposed, yet equally desperate, groups of people provides an unforgettable experience for the viewer.

United 93 is a harrowing film for all its distance and understatement, but it probably needs to be. Upfront and honest, eschewing sentimentality, it has no heart warming survivors' agenda but simply endeavours to put across the shock and horror of events as they happened. Some critics have protested that it doesn't seek to address why they happened, yet this seems to miss the point. It was their very randomness, so far as most of those involved were concerned, that gave them their power.

This is the underlying horror, which the world now has to confront. United 93 provides a means by which to begin to do so.

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

Angus Wolfe Murray *****
The Exile ****1/2
Anton Bitel ****
The Remote Viewer ****

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