There are no recognizable faces in Paul Greengrass’s new film, United 93. There are not really even any starring roles. There is no heroic music, no special effects, no chest-beating patriotism, no squared jaws, no exquisite profiles, no extended love scenes. As he did in his 2002 film Bloody Sunday, which dealt with the 1972 massacre of Londonderry peace marchers by British Soldiers, Greengrass tells a profoundly emotional story with little dramatic embellishment. This almost documentary approach results in a powerful and engrossing account undiluted by the sentimentality that often mars Hollywood depictions of history.
Perhaps one reason the film is so effective is that it shows the unfolding of September 11th much as most of us experienced it – as spectators. Aside from the doomed Flight 93, the action is almost wholly confined to the control towers in New York and Boston, and a NORAD control room. We see the growing realization in New York and Boston that something has gone wrong. A plane is no longer communicating and one controller hears a brief snatch of what sounds like an altercation in the cockpit. Then another plane drops out of communication and vanishes. What begins as a slightly skeptical response to a presumed single hijacking soon grows into the conviction that something far more terrible is happening.
Meanwhile, Flight 93 is preparing for takeoff, most of its light complement of passengers and crew unaware of the tragedy already set into motion. It is there, well into the flight, that the banality of a long trip across country is interrupted by the explosion of violence that, for those passengers, marked the beginning of 9/11. There are of course, no living witnesses to what happened on United 93, only the accounts pieced together by the cockpit recordings and the cell phone calls made to relatives from the plane. Greengrass had to fictionalize some moments, but he does so seamlessly and without any cinematic flourishes. As a result, the passengers’ slow realization that this is no ordinary hijacking, and the decision they reach, seems not just believable but inevitable.
All of the performances are good, but the nature of this film is such that they are also all low-keyed. Instead of “Look Ma, I’m acting” moments, there are brief, memorable vignettes. An older woman on United 93 hands the college girl in the next seat her cell phone and tells her simply, “call your people.” A group of soldiers in the NORAD control room stare open mouthed at the smoking towers of the World Trade Center on CNN, as dumbfounded for that moment as any civilian watching from a living room. The one stand out performance is that of Lewis Alsamari, who deserves credit not only for being brave enough to take on the role of hijacker Saeed Al Ghamdi in a film likely to arouse strong emotions, but for his tightly wound, believable performance as a man preparing to do the unthinkable.
The first showing of the film’s trailer aroused some controversy from viewers who felt that it is still too early to make a movie about Flight 93, and there are parts of the film that, for our generation, are especially difficult to watch. It’s hard to believe, but it’s nevertheless true that 9/11 will pass, as the Kennedy assassinations, the bombing of the Murrah Building, and other national tragedies have, into the past, and even someday out of living memory. United 93 captures, without being either maudlin or manipulative, what 9/11 was like. That alone makes it more than worthwhile.