Movie Review: United 93

By Daron Aldridge

June 21, 2008

United 93 - a genuinely great film

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This is possibly the one film with the most potential for propagandizing and emotional manipulation, but United 93 sidesteps the easy way out and gives us a brilliant portrayal of previously unimaginable events that simply tells an uplifting story without the normal movie pitfalls and clichés.

United 93, both written and directed by Paul Greengrass, achieves the perfect tone for a film that follows a 'story' of one day that impacted the collective American public. It begins with the routines of individuals preparing for a day of travel. These individuals include the passengers, the crew and the air traffic controllers, and they are all completely unaware of what is ahead. I must confess that given its factual nature, it is difficult to refer to the people shown as 'characters' because it feels like it somewhat demeans their existence.

The use of mostly unknown actors and non-actors portraying themselves allows the story to be told without the distraction of a 'name' performer being the focal point. I recognized only two people in the cast by face and name (Gregg Henry and David Rasche). The plot is rightfully the focus and the emotions displayed by the cast throughout the film were rooted in truth. For example, any profanity had its place as a believable reaction to the circumstances rather than a string of four-letter words that would be at home in Goodfellas. Basically, these are real people shown realistically.


Greengrass' documentary-style direction is ideally suited for this film by being non-invasive and void of camera tricks and elaborate set-ups. The audience gets the sense of being an observer that could have easily been just sitting in the room of each scene. Even when the transition onboard the plane goes from calm to frenetic, the camera angle mirrors the movements of the passengers with low angles and quick panning as those in the back of the plane scan the situation. When Greengrass moves on to the hijackers as they pilot the plane with an anxious yet calm hand, the camera is held in a more of a steady position. For the ground scenes, the quick cuts and camera adjustments effectively illustrated all the anxiety and intricacies of how the military and air traffic personnel were attempting to assess and resolve the situation.

With this type of movie, there is an inherent trap in that viewers know the ending, but Greengrass deftly makes the preceding hour and half before the inevitable act of heroism compelling and insightful. Impressively, Greengrass's scripted treatment of the events accomplishes this feat with restraint and respect by the virtue of what is not included. The lack of character development or even providing the names of the passengers adds to the notion of these are strangers banding together for a single purpose. There was no long exposition about the plan or personal anecdotes and motivations. These people were placed in a situation and had limited time from the start to the finish, so this restraint added to the credibility of the film. Greengrass chose to not sensationalize this tragedy and thankfully, spared the audience the act of turning "Let's Roll" into a catchphrase. This is something that could easily have happened in the hands of a lesser screenwriter. Similarly, the movie ends the way it should without overt emotional manipulations but rather text on the screen bringing the only sense of closure possible.

It's a little unsettling that United 93 so clearly illustrates the sense of naiveté that we had on the morning of September that was obliterated. Greengrass has given us a believable portrayal of how the events on United 93 occurred. United 93 is definitely one of the best films of 2006 and is worth your time and emotional investment. Like American History X and Schindler's List, while I am thankful I saw the movie, I can't imagine I could pop it in for multiple viewings.



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