If there is one thing riskier than making a film about the war on terror, it’s making a movie about the horrible day that started the damn thing in the first place. Paul Greengrass was brave enough to make such a film and thankfully he was skilful enough to make it in a way that would be tasteful, accurate, and nail biting all at once. With United 93 (2006) he placed his focus not on politicians or soldiers, but on ordinary people who fought back against their captors and more than likely helped to avoid an even bigger catastrophe.
Considering its subject matter Greengrass’ film of course did not make a fortune at the box-office and I was also hesitant to see it for a while. Watching any movie that deals with Sept.11 feels a bit like homework assignment: you don’t really want to do it, but you probably should. Everyone who was young enough to have experienced that day knows exactly what happened since the images of the towers collapsing kept playing on CNN all day long. I remember being in math class in Peru when our teacher asked my fellow students and I if we knew a plane had hit the towers. I thought he meant historically, as in back in the 70s a small propeller plane hit the roof, but no, he meant that very day. Cue to six years later at the University of Sherbrooke and I make the decision to experiment part of that day again when the movie comes out on DVD.
I can only imagine what it must have been like for anyone with a close personal connection to those events to see United 93 on the big screen because as just an ordinary witness who saw it from afar seeing them recreated on the small screen still packs quite a punch. Greengrass’ signature films are of course the two best entries in the Jason Bourne franchise, which each have their own very gritty moments amidst the intense action, but here Greengrass rightfully went with a very minimalist approach. The biggest name on the cast is Christian Clemenson, a character actor who did great work on Boston Legal, but he is definitely not Tom Cruise famous. Everyone else in the cast is played by either unknown professional actors, actual airline employees, or even people who were there that day such as FAA operations manager Ben Sliney.
It was Sliney who made the decision to ground every single plane in the United States and close the airspace after the first three planes hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. An unprecedented act at the time, made even more impressive by the fact that it was his first day on the job. One can only imagine what it must have been like for him to recreate those moments for the cameras.
The moments with Sliney and his staff are tense enough as they watch the world change forever, but when the action cuts back to aboard United 93 you feel a sense of helplessness. You know what is coming for those passengers and it as though you are there with them. Of course at the time they had no idea of their fate, all they knew was that their plane had been hijacked by men claiming to have a bomb onboard and, thanks to their air phones, that the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon had been struck. Realizing that if they did nothing they would not only die, but also die as a weapon against many more people, they chose to rise up and try to take back control of the plane.
When discussing the movie with someone else who had seen it I was asked what is the point of a movie like United 93 or Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre. As a devout film fan I would say one obvious reason is that it provides an opportunity to make a very powerful piece of filmmaking. As a person who, along with millions of others, witnessed the horror of that day I would say that more importantly it is a reminder that there was not just evil on Sept. 11, but also bravery.