Atestament to the power of Paul Greengrass' traumatic new work, United 93, is that it draws a picture of tragedy so human, so experiential that my emotions reached out to all the characters, even the terrorists, at whose bloody deaths I was shocked to find myself -- not for the first time in the film -- crying quietly in the theater.
United 93 tells the story of the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93, the last plane to be overtaken on September 11, 2001. It was the only plane that did not reach its intended target, the White House, thanks to a brave group of passengers who realized they were part of suicide mission and staged a revolt.
Yet despite painting a fairly relentless picture of these passengers as heroic martyrs, the film never goes overboard with simple notions of good and evil. Very few characters in this film are meant to be recognized as clear protagonists and almost none to be remembered by name. Greengrass succeeds instead in creating a real mesh of citizens, both in the air and on the ground.
Perhaps more controversially, Greengrass extends this treatment to the terrorists, opening the film on a subdued shot of them piously preparing for their mission. Greengrass even gives us a terrorist saying his last loving goodbyes over his cell phone before boarding the plane, a scene that cruelly mimics the last moments of the passengers.
The film draws the viewer into the experience through the use of a purposefully roughshod, cinema-verité style of camerawork. The boarding of passengers, chatter of flight attendants, and glances between terrorists are framed in an intimate, off-center manner that drops the viewer into the next seat on the plane. The fast-paced intercutting that carries the body of the film benefits from this style as well, pulsing with an over-the-shoulder energy at the crammed headquarters of the military and the Federal Aviation Administration.
If United 93 has any political feelings, it keeps them so buried beneath the crush of realistic confusion and shock that I didn't grasp them. The film depicts both the FAA and the military as woefully unprepared for an attack of this sort, but there is no personified culprit, only a mess of angry officials struggling and failing to prevent a tragedy from unfolding. Greengrass dismisses the wealth of conspiracy theories that suggest the military might have shot down the plane, not because he believes they were unwilling but simply incompetent.
What is most disturbing about the film is that, by creating a universe of such ordinary characters, what Greengrass gives the audience is very much a reliving of that day. Both the military and the FAA get their best information in this film from watching CNN. The televised images and scenes of powerlessness bring back all the emotions ordinary Americans experienced on that day, giving the last scene an almost dangerously intoxicating thrill of revenge.
It isn't too soon to make this film, but it is a disturbing and emotional experience, one that must be handled with as much care by the audience member who completes it as Greengrass clearly took to make it.