The shocking attacks of September 11, 2001 generated a variety of responses beyond the predictable search for answers and explanations, including such amazingly un-American activities as preemptive invasion of another country, suspension of civil liberties, illegal surveillance of citizens, secret prisons, and officially sanctioned torture. But until now, oddly, it has inspired little in the way of art. Although some controversy surrounds the release of United 93, the first Hollywood motion picture to deal with that infamous day, because of the short passage of time since then, popular culture usually reacts much more quickly to extraordinary events, which suggests that American filmmakers actually exercised some rare patience and restraint.
The movie itself demonstrates some surprising qualities of maturity and balance, a measure of objectivity generally missing from most public reactions to the terrorism of 9/11. In telling the story of that fateful morning, the writer and director, Paul Greengrass, concentrates on the one airplane that failed to reach its target --- presumably the Capitol --- but, as a result of the actions of its passengers, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Without sensationalism or sentimentality, his picture provides a remarkably credible and utterly compelling version of the events.
To create the appearance of real action in real time, the movie employs a kind of cinema verité representation of a story involving many people in many places. Using innumerable quick cuts and rapid changes of scene, the picture weaves together scores of strands of character and action, jumping around in a variety of locations on the ground as well as inside the airplane itself. Because of the large number of people in all those locations, no particular person emerges as anything remotely resembling a star or a lead, and no recognizable actors play the parts.
The picture begins its characteristic movement with shots of the terrorists praying and preparing for their final journey on United Airlines Flight 93. It also shows parallel sequences of the airplane's crew readying the craft, passengers lining up and boarding, all the minutiae of contemporary air travel. The hand-held camera almost never fixes on one particular person, rarely shows a long or even a medium shot, but confines itself mostly to tight close-ups, as if it were simply part of the crowd on board, essentially putting the viewer on the airplane as well.
In addition to its movement among the passengers, the point of view shifts frequently to numerous locations on the ground, all of them connected to one region or another of air traffic control, both civilian and military. An alert controller hears some garbled foreign language before the transponder of one of the World Trade Center planes shuts off, others lose communication with the two other hijacked planes, and nobody initially can quite figure out the problem. An impotent military begs for orders from somebody, but nobody can locate the president or the vice president. By the time the people on the ground realize the truth, of course, it is too late to do anything except mourn.
In the air, the movie tracks the progress of the terrorists' takeover of United 93, building suspense through the most ordinary acts --- the innocent victims, unaware of the threat, chat, read, nap, and eat their breakfast, while the hijackers plot their destruction. Despite the audience's knowledge of the story and its outcome, the sequences maintain a high level of tension and create several moments of action that, despite their familiarity, still shock and disturb.
The concentration on the mundane details of the trip, the technical procedures of the air traffic controllers, the brief, incomplete conversations, the rapid cuts from individual to individual add to the pervasive sense of a normality about to be disrupted, a familiar fabric of the everyday about to be violently torn apart, a random assortment of ordinary people about to encounter a terrible fate. Avoiding distortion and melodrama, the director refuses to turn those passengers into the heroes embraced and exploited by politicians and the media, but simply allows his cameras and his microphones to capture their compelling and moving human reality. United 93 touches on the real tragedy of September 11, 2001 in a paradoxically intense and remarkably unspectacular manner, and thus attains the triumph of truth.
United 93 (R), directed by Paul Greengrass, is playing at Culver Ridge 16, Henrietta 18, Webster 12, Tinseltown, Greece Ridge 12, and Eastview 13.