Virtually everybody has already seen a movie about the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Simply watching the various tragedies of that morning unfold on television was an experience akin to a film: at once visual, personal and communal. Less than five years later, it's a history that remains vivid, even fresh, as ancillary aspects of that day continue to play out.
Thus Paul Greengrass' docudrama United 93, which purports to depict what happened on board the hijacked plane that ultimately crashed in a field in Somerset County, must navigate two tricky paths. Can a retread of those familiar events be compelling? And is it too soon to position Sept. 11 as entertainment?
For me, the second question, posed by the media in response to reactions to the film's trailer, is easily answered: When the months after Sept. 11 found us eagerly consuming Mrs. Todd Beamer's book, mountains of related patriotic gee-gaws, celebrity-filled telethons and endless media raptures about "heroes," the material is already cemented in both the pop-culture canon and consumer culture.
But film is a powerful, persuasive medium, and when a movie undertakes a fact-based drama, there's the risk that what will be codified won't be truth so much as marketable material. This was my concern with United 93. I feared a feel-good, Hollywood-style version of heroism about what are, in fact, unknown moments. Remarkably, Greengrass mostly avoids the traps of revisionist history, sensationalism and sentimentality. Despite our near-photographic recall of that day, he confidently delivers an unflinching document of that morning, a film that is both riveting in its drama and respectful of its subject matter.
In essence, this is a film without a plot, calculated dramatic arcs, distinctive characters, or even a resolution. Because Greengrass plays out his film in real time ... 91 minutes ... there are no backstories; we simply begin. Four men in a hotel room recite their morning prayers and get dressed. Pilots, flight attendants and maintenance personnel at Newark Airport prepare United Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 bound for San Francisco. Passengers make their way through security and wait at the gate. At the Federal Aviation Administration's operations command center, there's a standard morning briefing. Lower Manhattan gleams in the sunlight. Images of that bright, ordinary day are underscored with an anxious soundtrack.
Nor are there are any introductions to the passengers: They're either addressed by name in conversation or remain anonymous. We get only snippets of their chatter, without any loaded moments. They are everymen, and this makes their plight acutely accessible ... that could have been you, or anybody you know. On any other day, such snapshots ... stowing handbags, poking at an omelet, talking about dinner ... would be meaningless. Here, through the prism of our knowledge, they become hypercharged.
The banality of scenes showing passengers boarding Flight 93 and beginning their seemingly uneventful flight is intercut with depictions of concurrent events at several related locations: the air-traffic control towers at Boston and the New York airports; the FAA center in Herndon, Va.; and the Northeast Air Defense Sector, in upstate New York. As that normal day turns strange, the film unspools moments that are like disparate pieces of a jigsaw puzzle ... a slice of disturbing cockpit chatter; a plane dropping off radar; a fire at the World Trade Center. In these disconnected nerve centers, the situation moves from routine to confusion, from shock to terrible realization. The film strenuously avoids any commentary, but this depiction of how communications among aviation and security entities failed once trouble started is a real gut-punch.
Greengrass, who also scripted United 93, based his narrative on scores of interviews, news accounts and investigative reports. He also secured the cooperation of the victims' families, many of whom provided personal information. It may matter that Greengrass is British, and can sort through the raw data of that day with more distance. On the other hand, he may just have a facility for tricky, emotionally laden historical material. He began his career shooting documentary footage in world hotspots, and his well-received 2002 film Bloody Sunday, about an infamous violent clash in Northern Ireland, was another fog-of-war docudrama.
United 93 feels documentary-like, slightly dispassionate and with a lot of handheld camera, particularly when events turn frenetic. The roles are played by unknown character actors, except where Greengrass cast real people as themselves, particularly the personnel at the various air-traffic centers. Consequently, these scenes ring with authenticity ... the regional accents, the easy facility with terminology ... though I can't imagine what it would be like for such individuals to relive that morning for posterity on film.
While it's important to our national psyche to believe that something noble occurred on that plane, United 93 doesn't offer a simplistic, comforting mythology about what may have happened and why. No obvious leader rises up, nor is there any definitive rallying moment or any square-jawed assertions that some structure somewhere must be saved. Greengrass presents the final moments of United 93 as plainly, and as plausibly, as possible ... a group of frightened, anguished and confused people struggling, at bare minimum, to save their lives.