There was a lot of concern surrounding the release of ‘United 93’ in 2006, with inevitable cries of “too soon” heard before the film opened. Four years passed since the horrendous events of 9/11, before director Paul Greengrass stepped up and took on the challenge of making a film about one the darkest moments in modern history. Despite the concerns, the film undoubtedly carried an air of importance around it, creating a heady mix of trepidation and fascination as to what the film would be like.
The film centres on United Flight 93, one of the planes hijacked on 9/11, which crashed near the borough of Shanksville, Pennsylvania; a crash which received far less media coverage than that of the attacks on the World Trade Centre yet one which is no less horrific. To tell a personal story in the midst of the chaos of the World Trade Centre attacks would be a nigh on impossible task, as Oliver Stone found out in his sentimental ‘World Trade Centre’ project. By focussing on this particular flight, and depicting the events as they unfold in real time, from multiple perspectives, Greengrass allows the personal stories of those on board to be front and centre.
Greengrass chose unknown actors for the film; another wise decision, as picking well known Hollywood stars would have, perhaps, undermined the poignant tone of the film. After all, the tragic event was never about any one person, and the film effectively highlights this. The whole cast give brave and believable performances and to talk about one individual would do a disservice to an ensemble that tastefully channel the desperation, fear and the defiance of those on board. Greengrass gets subtlety and nuance from each actor, and considering the limited screen time for most characters, this is a remarkable achievement.
The real star of the film is Paul Greengrass. The director has had a diverse career, spearheading the latter two films in ‘The Bourne Trilogy’, as well as the recent ‘Captain Phillips’. Arguably, the success of ‘United 93’ is almost entirely down to him. To make a film with a subject matter this delicate, it would have to take a person more emotionally removed from the events, basically a non-American; the events would almost certainly be too raw for an American to deliver in an unprejudiced manner such as this. As with his other films, Greengrass tells the story from both sides. This was not a decision made to draw sympathy with these people, nor was it a misguided attempt to liberalise the events of 9/11. This film was made to highlight the fact that there are more complex reasons behind the actions of those involved. The film’s opening sequence shows the terrorists preparing themselves for the day, shaving and praying; a quick reminder that they weren’t incarnations of the Devil but people like you and me. And is that not more frightening? On a technical level, ‘United 93’ is groundbreaking. Very few directors can put sight and sound together the way Greengrass can. He manages to build tension in the film over a nerve wracking 111 minutes, with pacing of sublime precision and a climactic crescendo so overwhelming, it would take a man with a stone heart not to be immeasurably moved.
Many claim that in reality, the passengers on board United Flight 93 never fought back against their attackers and there has been a backlash against the film because of this. Criticisms of the films factual accuracy, to me, seem devoid of sensible reasoning. In the end, does it matter whether they did? It has taken a filmmaker of immense talent to sift through the mire that was 9/11 in a bid to find what really matters; the beauty and courage of the human spirit.
DIRECTOR: PAUL GREENGRASS
STARRING: DAVID ALAN BASCHE, OLIVIA THIRLBY, LIZA COLON-ZAYAS, J.J JOHNSON