Soon enough, we’ll be able to talk about “9-11 movies.” The protective airtight do-not-touch seal on the subject comes off, for movies anyway, this year. “Too soon” or “not soon enough” are irrelevant. Get used to it. Sooner than you think, we’ll be having conversations about “9-11 movies.” Which ones are better, which ones are less so, protrayals and repeat characters and so on and so forth.
But not yet. Right now, it’s only the beginning. Right now, Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” is not “a 9-11 movie.” It’s THE 9-11 movie. It’s patient-zero: The first big screen film to recreate events of that day in detail. So, right now, any attempt to simply “review” it is going to seem somehow insubstantial. What else can it be compared to? From what do we draw reference? Even the IDEA of holding it up against other “disaster” movies… or even calling it a “thriller”… seems somehow small and almost vulgar.
Relating the facts (along with some studiously-careful conjecture) of United 93, the fourth plane hijacked on 9-11 that crashed in Pennsylvania following an (apparently) successful attempt by it’s passengers to overwhelm the terrorists and stop them from hitting their target (believed to have been Washington, D.C.), Greengrass pushes his now-famous semi-documentary style of quivering cameras to it’s logical extreme: The film plays from the perspective of a fly on the wall. There’s no “manipulative” music, no visible story-structure, no “money shots” or “applause lines.” We don’t learn most of the characters names, nor do we glean but slivers of backstory. It exists entirely in the moment, NOTHING before and only a series of explainatory title cards after. This isn’t just adaptation, it’s re-creation.
This is probably the only way that “THE 9-11 movie” could have been made and worked as well as it does, (the time for more story-driven, conventional-narrative versions is later) but I’d hazard a guess that a (near) universally-experienced event like this is the only way audiences would ever willingly endure a film in this style. Contrary to the preachings of militant-realists like Robert Altman, characterization, visual markers and musical-nudging aren’t just cheats for cheap manipulation: Most films require such simply to engage the audience, to give them a frame of basic reference to “anchor” themselves within the film. “United 93”, however, requires no such anchor: From the moment a waiting-hijacker glances out one of the plane’s windows and casually spies the Twin Towers still standing, the film has you’re attention by the throat. You remember where you were, what you saw, and what you must now prepare to see again…
…except for one thing. The film promises you that this time, at least, you will see something different. The outcome will be what you remember, but if you can endure it this time… this time… you’ll recieve a moment of catharsis. You’ll see one or more of the terrorists thrown to the ground, overwhelmed and (dare you hope) pounded mercilessly by one of his intended victims. That this eventually feels heroic is without question, whether or not it is truly cathartic remains in the eye of the individual.
The cast is largely unfamiliar faces, and much of the air-traffic and military-command personnel play themselves, so trying to talk about performance because nearly impossible. Suffice it to say that no one ever betrays the movie-ness of the situation.
In the end, there are no pauses for applause or instructions on how we’re supposed to feel; and that’s possibly what’s most remarkable: No traditional tropes of the heroic film are on-display, but the real-enough actions of it’s heroes provoke the gut-reaction of hope and support anyway. A more fitting tribute I cannot fathom.
FINAL RATING: 10/10