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Bruce Munro

Published May 31st, 2006 | by Bruce Munro

United 93 Review

Director: Paul Greengrass Rating: 4.5/5

Some have questioned whether it was too soon to make a film about the events of September 11. Whether that is the case or not is a matter of personal opinion. I found it difficult to watch so soon after having my breakfast, but this is down to the effect that fast paced, documentary-style shots have on my delicate constitution rather than any objections I have about making a movie which uses September 11 as its subject matter.

United 93 takes its name from the plane that was hijacked but crashed into farmland in Pennsylvania before it could hit its target, the U.S. Capitol building, because passengers on board tried to wrest control back from the terrorists. But writer and director Paul Greengrass does not focus entirely on their struggle, with the first half also showing how events that morning unfolded for those working in air traffic control centres on the ground and for armed service personnel who had to respond to this unprecedented crisis. Greengrass takes the audience through the various developments, but despite portraying the various bodies in charge of the skies over America as confused and bewildered by what they were faced with, he is definitely not looking to place blame. Rather, it seems that he just wishes to demonstrate the complex puzzle that these men and women were faced with – why were civilian airliners disappearing off the radar, why would a pilot fly into one of the Twin Towers?

It is in the second half of the film that the Greengrass focuses on those aboard United 93. The four terrorists, armed only with knives, kill both the pilot and co-pilot, and fly the plane towards Washington D.C., a photo of the U.S. Capitol building strapped helpfully to the controls. The passengers are shoved into the back of the plane, believing that one of the terrorists has a bomb that he will detonate if anyone tries to come near him. Fearing for the worst, many phone their families to tell them that they love them. It becomes quickly becomes apparent to them that the plane itself is the weapon, and they decide to fight back. They overpower two of the terrorists and force their way into the cockpit, but with the plane already flying at a very low altitude it crashes before they can take control.

Characterisation is kept to a minimum in the film, and Greengrass deserves all the praises he gets for keeping the back stories to a minimum. No attempt is made to justify the actions of the terrorists with flashbacks to incidents that could warp someone’s mind to the extent that flying a plane full of people into a US Government building seemed, in some way, justifiable. Similarly, we know little about the lives of the passengers, they are just some ordinary people with ordinary lives trapped in an extraordinary situation. In a lesser film, they could be seen to be the heroes of the piece. Greengrass makes it clear that these people had nothing to lose, and they knew it. Modern communications meant they were aware of what had happened to the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and so those on board we able to deduce that they weren’t in a “normal” terrorist airline hijack situation. They were going to die one way or the other, making it the decision to attack the hijackers an easy one to make. This does nothing to detract from the courage shown by these individuals. If anything, it adds to it.


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