thoughts on united 93

September 11, 2006

united_93.jpg
For all the television coverage, all the newspaper and magazine articles, and all the photographs that have chronicled the events of September 11, 2001, in the five intervening years, nothing has brought me nearer to the realities and tragedies of that day than director Paul Greengrass’ United 93. An almost unbearably intense and emotional film, it both shocked and amazed me more than I can say–this being a review of sorts, though, I must try.

We see the passengers aboard the doomed plane, their faces drawn, sweaty, and tearful in the beautiful light of the morning. We see the military officials, proud, angry, and frustratingly impotent in the face of an unfolding disaster. And we see the air traffic controllers, on whose dimly lit screens develops a nightmare of unprecedented scope and horror. How real it is, and how true; many controllers are played by the actual veterans of that dizzying whirlwind of phone calls, shouting, and stunned silence, with events unfolding in real time with frightening speed and whirling vortices of human frailty combined with unlikely courage.

It’s a marathon, beginning in earnest with the hijacking of the plane after a tense first hour which sees the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacked, with federal agencies scrambling to make sense of it all while terrorists bicker and pray about their imminent mission of death. Their lack of control over the half-empty plane is startling, though they wield a knife and a “bomb” after critically wounding several people; passengers begin to make discreet calls using the in-flight telephones, wishing loved ones goodbye. “I love you” is their common refrain.

This being “the flight that fought back,” the late moments show us the passengers–among them a former pilot and an air traffic controller–banding together in hopes of overcoming the hijackers by force. As the plane hurtles toward the ground, Greengrass shows us limbs clawing their way into the cockpit, crushing heads and arms in hopes of averting a tragic end.

Yet end it must, and so it does, but without fanfare or flashes of light. We see a black screen. John Powell’s music swells. Raw sorrow overwhelms.

United 93 honors the memory those who died on September 11, 2001, and it does so by showing us the people, the mistakes, the essence of what occurred. I won’t soon forget it.

–D. S. W.

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