We’ve seen it before. Politicians, musicians and movie stars have all attempted to capitalize on the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001 to sell policies, political beliefs and even CDs. Appealing to patriots on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, the highly anticipated film “United 93” (Universal Pictures) attempts to do the same. Writer and director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Identity”) effectively uses historical hindsight to retell the events surrounding the crash of the plane of the same name on Sept. 11.
Movie name and release date changes have been fueled by controversy surrounding the film since its beginning. Timeliness has been another factor in the incessant controversy surrounding the film, as it is being released less than five years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Many films based on recent events face harsh pre-release criticism because the events are recent enough in the public’s mind to know what actually happened.
The film begins in the early hours of Sept. 11 as the four hijackers prepare for their mission. Before the plane crew, passengers and terrorists board the plane, the audience is introduced to an array of officials beginning their days’ work at air traffic control centers in Herndon, Va. and New York City. Sept. 11 was Federal Aviation Administration National Operations Manager Ben Sliney’s first day on the job (who played himself in the movie).
As passengers board the flight, en route to San Francisco, Sliney and officials learn that a commercial airplane leaving Boston for Los Angeles has been hijacked. Moments later, another airplane is hijacked leaving air traffic controllers puzzled. Once United 93 is in the air, officials learn more details about the hijackings as the first two planes reach the World Trade Center towers.
While scrambling to close airports and receive word from the President about what to do with a third hijacked plane, Sliney and the FAA assume that United 93 has also been hijacked when the plane veers off course.
The events leading up to the hijacking of United 93 perfectly establish the intense communications air traffic controllers experienced up and down the east coast. Paul Greengrass is sure to please liberals with his depiction of officials involved in the attack, especially the President, who is seen as incapable of communicating with others to avert a national catastrophe. Also, shaky handheld shots follow controllers as they attempt to avert a national catastrophe, making the audience feel as if they were actually in the FAA control rooms.
As the attention shifts from the controllers to the events on the plane, the film begins to lose some momentum. Greengrass creates his interpretation of the events on the flight from the black box tapes from the plane, interviews with the families of the victims and statements from the U.S. government. Some of the conversations seem a bit contrived, however, as passengers establish relationships with one another on their short flight.
Other minor imperfections are visible in the film. Greengrass overemphasizes images such as “God Bless America” written on a wall near the Newark Airport, and a freeze frame of the co-pilot’s wedding ring tries to force the evocation of emotion over a subject that is naturally still very emotional to most Americans. This focus on “American values” gratifies the overtly patriotic conservative members of the audience.
Despite these shortfalls, Greengrass makes up for the forced emotion by allowing the mostly unknown actors playing passengers to ad lib dialog with one another. This creates real intensity between the passengers and helps portray them as real people instead of just characters in a movie. Greengrass was able to accomplish this rare feat by giving the actors background studies of their real-life counterparts.
After five years of hearing politicians discuss the Patriot Act and Homeland Security, Washingtonians and Americans alike now list terrorism as one of their greatest fears.
Hollywood is attempting to cash in this fear when United 93 opens nationwide Friday.