A slow-motion nightmare that's not exploitative
Paul Greengrass' docudrama doesn't exploit the horror of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and it doesn't spin the story of United Flight 93, which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania without reaching a specific target, into anything other than a study in dread and terror. The plane was hijacked. The passengers fought back. Nobody won.
Exactly what happens on the other three planes remains a mystery to us, and to the East Coast air-traffic controllers who watch one plane drop off the radar -- followed by another, and another -- before reappearing as a flying bomb. We follow the controllers, and later, the military at NORAD, as they struggle to make sense of the nightmare unfolding on their screens. Greengrass contrasts their impotent confusion with the blissful innocence of most of the passengers on United 93, heading from Newark to San Francisco, ignorant of the four hijackers in their midst until they rise up and take the plane by force, killing a flight attendant and the pilots and changing course for Washington.
Thanks to air restrictions, 93 was delayed on the ground for half an hour - long enough for the other hijacked planes to reach their targets, and for the hostages to hear the news via furtive airphone calls. Realizing that their plane is unlikely to land safely, several of the passengers -- played by a cast of able character actors, including Christian Clemenson, David Alan Basche and David Rasche -- put together a hasty plan to retake the plane.
"United 93" tells their story with elegance and dignity, avoiding most of the pitfalls of telegraphing or oversimplification. Characters are, by necessity, little more than sketches, but they're efficient and convincing sketches. There is some computer imagery, inevitably, but most of the film's crucial moments are depicted with that familiar, awful CNN footage; after all, everybody on the ground was watching it, just like us.
It's a very well-made and intelligent movie, and yet, on a basic level I don't know why it exists. "United 93" doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know, except perhaps that the FAA at one point believed five planes had been hijacked, rather than four, and that George W. Bush was utterly unavailable to both civilian and military authorities in the hour immediately following the first hit on the World Trade Center.
It may not be too soon for a movie about 9/11, in any moral or aesthetic sense, but the attacks were perhaps the most-witnessed event in human history, and Greengrass' interpretation doesn't offer anything to enhance, or to challenge, our collective memory. He clearly wants to tell this specific story -- he's said as much, repeatedly -- but he doesn't tell us why.
For all its technical proficiency, and white-knuckle momentum, United 93 evaporates the moment the credits roll. It's just play-acting. David Rasche isn't dead; he's over in "The Sentinel," playing the President. No movie is real, of course, but United 93 feels particularly unreal -- like a nightmare that dissipates on waking. When it's over, the world is the same as it was when you pressed "Play." Which is precisely the opposite of the way it was on September 11th.
Universal's enhanced-widescreen DVD gives the film a much-needed external context, firstly through Greengrass' eloquent audio commentary, and then through Kate Solomon's hour-long documentary, "United 93: The Families and the Film," which spends time with the families and friends of the dead as the film is produced more or less in the background, allowing their testimony to re-create their loved ones as real people, instead of sketches -- something the film itself neglected to accomplish.
The disc also includes text biographies of the passengers and crew, as originally provided in the press materials. The hijackers are discreetly excluded.
Universal is also releasing United 93 in a two-disc "limited edition," which includes an additional documentary, "Chasing Planes: Witnesses to 9/11," re-creating the attacks through interviews with the real air-traffic controllers and ground personnel who play themselves in the film.
STUDIO:Universal Studios Home Entertainment
RELEASE DATE:September 5th
PRICE: $29.98 (standard edition) / $30.98 (limited edition)
TIME: 111 minutes
DVD EXTRAS:French and Spanish audio dubs; English, French and Spanish subtitles; audio commentary; documentary. Limited edition includes additional documentary.