United 93 

(R) 3.5 Stars

Ed Johnson-Ott
(R) 3.5 Stars Ed Johnson-Ott Crew and passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 charge to reclaim the plane from the hijackers. United 93 is the third feature about the hijacked plane that crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside on Sept. 11, 2001. Last year, the Discovery Channel presented the docudrama The Flight That Fought Back and, more recently, A&E offered Flight 93. Both films attempted to show what happened that horrible morning without sensationalism. Both films stuck to the facts as best they could; facts conveyed in phone calls made by various passengers. Both films were informative, moving and quite good. There was little doubt that United 93 would be skillfully done. Writer-director Paul Greengrass’ 2002 film, Bloody Sunday, took the 1972 shootings of 13 unarmed civil rights demonstrators by British soldiers in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and created a dramatization that looked as if it had been filmed by a crack documentary crew. The question was whether the film would seem redundant. After the other two films, would Greengrass have anything new to bring to the table? The answer is yes, sort of. What I mean is that the most interesting thing about Greengrass’ movie is not what he puts in, but what he leaves out. The two earlier productions devoted considerable time to the passengers that made phone calls. The Discovery Channel docudrama went into more personal detail than the A&E TV-movie, but both showed the callers and the people on the ground they talked with. To a limited extent, we got to know those key passengers. Not in United 93. Though Greengrass spends a lot of time with air traffic controllers in New York and Boston, along with military personnel at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS), he does not offer even a glimpse of the recipients of the calls from the plane. Moreover, he mostly avoids even identifying the passengers by name. As a result, United 93 has a different feel than its predecessors. The focus is more on the group than the individuals. We watch as an assortment of strangers comes to realize that they are aboard a suicide flight and that they have to do something. Gradually, fitfully, the strangers unite enough to enact a desperate assault. At first I missed the inclusion of the personalities I had become familiar with in the previous films. It seemed unfair to take these distinct souls and make them just part of the group. But Greengrass is simply playing fair. In fiction, there are central figures that matter a great deal, supporting characters that matter much less and a lot of incidental figures. In United 93 everyone matters the same. While I’m glad the portraits of some of the passengers (and their families) are available in the two Flight 93 TV productions and numerous other documentaries, Greengrass’ decision helps his film achieve its visceral “you are there” feel. Bear in mind, of course, that United 93 is still a docudrama. Certain incidents are depicted differently here than in other versions and there are obviously-fictional scenes added for dramatic effect. I wondered about a guy with a British accent who receives face time early in the film. Later, after the terrorists take over, the man freaks out and has to be subdued by the other passengers. I could be wrong, but my guess is that Greengrass invented this character and that he gave him a British accent so that viewers wouldn’t mistake him for one of the more well-known passengers. When watching the scenes with the air traffic controllers and the military personnel at NEADS, bear in mind that some of them are played by the real people that were there that day. Try to imagine someone volunteering to appear as themselves while being presented in a negative light. Couldn’t do it, right? Me either. But I’m quibbling. Regardless of the occasional reality tweak, United 93 succeeds as a gripping recreating of one nightmarish part of what is probably the worst day in American history. So why do we watch movies and TV shows about something so recent and so awful? You’ll have to sort that one out on your own.

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