Directed by Paul Greenglass (2006)
Little is known about what actually occurred in the waning moments of United Flight 93 on the morning of September 11, 2001. All we have is the mute cockpit voice recorder and the recollection of families based on cell phone messages received from passengers before the hijacked plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa. with no survivors. We also have the speculative recreation of director Paul Greenglass (Bloody Sunday) in his powerful film, United 93. Shot by Barry Ackroyd using a hand-held camera that makes you feel part of the action, (not recommended for viewers with a tendency to motion sickness), the film dramatizes the efforts of some passengers to free the plane from their captors whom they believed to be dedicated to carrying out a suicide mission, presumably in Washington, D.C.
Using more than 100 interviews with families, friends, and civilian and military officials, director Paul Greenglass shows us what might have happened to the 40 passengers and crew of the ill-fated plane. Striving for a documentary-like reality, Greenglass uses unknown actors and key civilian and military personnel to play themselves, including Ben Sliney who was in charge of the FAA command center. The film, however, does not hesitate to utilize conjecture such as a terrorist placing a picture of the Capitol building on the cockpit steering wheel or details of a final heroic assault on the cockpit.
United 93 begins in chaos and ends in flames. From the barely audible entreaties of the hijackers that open the film to the final prayers of the passengers and crew, the film revisits the fear and confusion of that day. Shifting between the passengers and crew as they prepare the plane for takeoff and air traffic control centers and FAA headquarters in Virginia, we watch helplessly as the nightmare unfolds before befuddled air traffic controllers and military personnel. Without belaboring the point, the director makes it clear that the lack of communications between key sectors and the unavailability of the President and Vice-President contributed to the disaster. Unlike Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911, however, there is no explanation of the fact that the Air Force requests orders from President George W. Bush but receives none.
Excruciatingly slow to move, when the leader Ziad Jarrah (Kahlid Abdalla) decides the time is right to take over the plane, we brace ourselves for what is to come, knowing there can be only one result and the last fifteen minutes are extremely harrowing, to say the least. While, to his credit, Greenglass does not add extraneous human interest dramas, political commentary, or overt demonizing of the Islamic hijackers, the decision to avoid character arcs is both a benefit and a detriment. While it avoids reducing the action to the level of a TV movie of the week, it also deprives us of any knowledge of the individuals involved, knowledge that might help us care more about what is happening.
United 93 does not bring closure to the tragedy or put it in perspective relative to subsequent events but only succeeds in rekindling our anger toward Islamic militants and, perhaps inadvertently, supports the Bush agenda. The result is a powerful experience but one that is strangely devoid of humanity and left me feeling drained and depressed with little space for quiet reflection or contemplation.