Passengers plot to take control of the plane from terrorist hijackers in Paul Greengrass' <i>United 93</i>.
It begins Sept. 10, 2001, the night before. The camera hovers silently over New York City, peering down between the skyscrapers, crossing midtown, through Times Square, then Chelsea. It's a clear night, and the office buildings are like white halos of phosphor.
We cut to morning. A group of men mouth prayers in their hotel rooms; a few stare at the floor and look nervous. They gather bags together and wait for word and they're off for the airport in Newark, with its runways and towers in eyesight of lower Manhattan.
The pace is sleepy.
At 8:42 a.m. their plane leaves.
At 8:46 a.m. American Flight 11 slams into the north tower of the World Trade Center. The editing picks up; the dialogue grows terse. The Newark men hijack their plane, turn it around over Ohio, and 81 minutes later, we see two sets of passengers praying, the ones who are not quietly improvising a revolt, and the terrorists, chanting silently, waiting for their target.
As we cut between these groups, the movie suspends for a moment, takes a breather, like an orchestral score before its final movement, then the passengers make their panicked, flailing rush at the cabin.
Here's where you suspect the missteps to begin: The brave act of those passengers has passed into popular American myth, along with the rallying cry, "Let's roll!" They've been called "citizen soldiers," co-opted for political use, and marketed for self-serving purposes.
Instead, here's what we get: A deeper respect, which honors them as people, not symbols. "Let's roll" is quick, not emphasized or surrounded by silence to lend it weight. (The drama of that day needs no help.) The passenger revolt is not a rousing patriotic response, yet you grasp their decision completely: This was a messy, spontaneous scramble to stay alive. The terrorists lose control and United 93 crashes in Pennsylvania and the screen goes black, then the movie is over.
Paul Greengrass' remarkably lucid and intense United 93, the movie no one wants to see, is the one movie in theaters right now that you should see. I can't say, however, that I blame you for flinching. And now that I've seen it, I still can't say that I blame you for flinching.
United 93 is the first Hollywood treatment of 9/11 and I can't imagine it getting any better than this. It's a film I have not been able to stop thinking about, replaying in my head, asking, surely Greengrass made a bad decision? Surely there's something's ghoulish to all this?
But no - he does everything right, aesthetically and morally.
He casts no stars; there's not a charismatic hero in the bunch, which only ratchets up your admiration for the real people. He doesn't linger on the final cell calls from the passengers to their loved ones; this couldn't be more different from A&E's maudlin Flight 93. Every decision is thoughtful, a few are bold, a few presumptuous (nobody really knows what happened aboard that plane), many are precise, all are mature.
We feel profoundly the split between the people on the plane and us, in our theater sets. Or rather, the lack of a split. Greengrass takes a moment to note it was a beautiful day to fly. There were empty seats on the plane. Passengers stretched out.
Is it voyeuristic? It can't help being, at least a little. He grants each person not a back story but anonymity. We never learn people's names; they stay anonymous, and of course, they could be us.
United 93 is a film to see once; as much admiration as it earns, you will feel it too viscerally to want to go back anytime soon.
But do not miss it that once.
Is it exploitative? No.
Is it distasteful? No.
Is it uplifting? Definitely not.
Is it a TV movie? Far from it.
Is it too soon? Yes, and no.
"Is it too soon?"
That's been a front-page headline for weeks - and it's an understandable question. The pain remains raw, but perhaps not raw enough; indeed, the movie brought me back to that September morning, in all its headlong momentum and pit-of-your-stomach sobriety, in a way I haven't felt since that morning.
But it is important to remember it's never too soon for an artful memorial, and United 93 - which does so much right despite the odds, and the expectations - is primarily a memorial. At the very least, even if no one sees it, here's hoping the picture raises thoughtful debate about the politics, purposes, and meanings of Sept. 11 memorials.
Because as much as it is a movie - an action movie, without the catharsis of a third-act resolution - it's no less a memorial, not so unlike the stark Vietnam memorial Maya Lin designed for Washington. It brushes aside rhetoric and dares to be both tremendous art and deeply grateful. As Lin realized, and Greengrass understands, restraint can mean authority.
Unlike other films about common citizenry rising to meet a menace - it would have been interesting to see what Spielberg would have done; his War of the Worlds and Saving Private Ryan are about precisely this - there's no awareness of the threat we face, no call to arms. There is only the moment, and how it was used.
What makes a memorial?
That it be respectful.
Takes measure of the dead.
Keeps in mind the living.
Fully half of United 93 is set on the ground, in the traffic towers of Boston, Cleveland, and Newark; in the Federal Aviation Administration command center in Virginia; and the North American Aerospace Defense Command headquarters in upstate New York.
To piece together a picture of what happened (and what didn't), Greengrass did original reporting, interviewed controllers in those towers, and relatives of passengers who were called during the hijacking; to that, he added the findings of the 9/11 Commission Report, which said:"They struggled, under difficult circumstances, to improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never before encountered, and had never trained to meet."
If there's maybe one or two shots too many of military guys and FAA underlings scrambling, you forgive it: Greengrass is deeply committed to making this about process, about everyday process and official process, and how process is struck dumb in the face of unimaginable threats.
You feel respect for the men and women in those air traffic towers trying to process information; when United 93 takes off, the film shifts into real time, and every minute, considering we know the outcome, gathers urgency. It's hard not to feel respect when nearly a dozen controllers play themselves, when FAA head Ben Sliney plays Ben Sliney - when even the United 93 pilots are played by actual pilots who work for other airlines.
Greengrass is no stranger to real-time accounts of atrocities. He made the nearly-as-intense Bloody Sunday (2002), about a march in Ireland that became a massacre when British soldiers fired on the crowd; his last picture was the superior action flick The Bourne Supremacy.
What these films share is a handheld camera that feels thrown into the clamor of the action until we're not looking at events head on. We're seeing them in flashes, from the corners of the frame.
How did so much go so wrong in those control towers? We see misinformation crossing paths, being passed along, missing the people who would know better; it's all clear, but not trumped up.
Where's the President?
Nobody can find him.
Are the FAA and military in contact? It appears so. And then, no.
You might flash back to Fahrenheit 9/11. I thought of The Passion of the Christ, which is just as single-minded, somber, and headed for an inevitable conclusion. Both films are also stripped of context, which is why I admire United 93 and still puzzle about Passion.
But about that question again - is it too soon? There have been 9/11 books and paintings, ballets and plays and songs and TV shows. It's worth asking why it's too soon, why it's even questioned, when movies decide to weigh in? I don't think it's fear of Hollywood's sensation machine, but fear of how roundly, how intensely, how physically, we can internalize good movies.
My hands are still shaking.
Yes, it's too soon. But for great movies, it is never soon enough.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com