5 out of 5 stars

Paul Greengrass’s United 93 breaks nearly every dramatic rule in the book: characters are barely developed at all, many narrative threads lead absolutely nowhere, and we know how it’s going to end before it’s even started. But it’s one of the most gripping and powerful mainstream movies of the last 20 years.

This isn’t only because of the momentousness of its subject matter and the way events are engraved in our collective memory. (For the generations who weren’t around in November 1963, September 11th 2001 is their “where were you when you heard Kennedy had been assassinated?” moment.) It’s also down to the bravura technical skills of Greengrass and his team, especially cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, the sound technicians, and composer John Powell.

In their hands the film starts gently, even reflectively, and then the drama’s dialled up and up and up, as one plane after another is crashed into New York and Washington D.C, as the authorities on the ground start to realise what’s happening, then the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 start to realise the same thing and resolve to fight back against their hijackers.

Eventually, in its last few minutes, United 93 becomes viscerally overwhelming. When the desperate passengers try to break into the cockpit of their Boeing 757 and wrest the controls away from the terrorists, residual order dissolves into chaos, the way it seemed to be doing everywhere on that day. Dialogue’s replaced by roars and screams and cries of “Allāhu ʾakbar”; the screen’s filled with almost abstract conflict, a riot of motion where it is impossible to make anything out clearly except the fields of Pennsylvania, looming larger and larger through the cockpit window.

I’ve seen United 93 around five times and this sequence remains jaw-dropping in its intensity, energy, and sheer horror. A small warning is appropriate, then: United 93 isn’t a popcorn movie and isn’t recommended for the emotionally fragile, or for children.

The movie opens with a two-and-a-half-minute sequence which is placid and contemplative, as different from the ending as could be but similarly concerned more with the accumulation of effect than with any specific action or line. We see skyscrapers at nighttime in a US city, hear quiet string music and a voice speaking softly in Arabic. In a dimly, warmly-lit hotel room four young men are shaving, praying, perhaps just thinking. They are Ziad Jarrah (Khalid Abdalla), Saeed al-Ghamdi (Lewis Alsamari), Ahmed al-Nami (Jamie Harding), and Ahmed al-Haznawi (Omar Berdouni). Nothing about what will happen is overt yet, save for a quick glimpse of a boxcutter, but of course we know already that they are the four hijackers who will seize Flight 93 on September 11th and try to crash it into the US capital.

They head to the airport in Newark, New Jersey, where they’ll be catching the plane. On their way to the departure lounge they pass advertising extolling the seductive, sexualised glamour of western consumerism: precisely what they’re here to fight against. In the departure lounge a passenger called Tom Burnett (Christian Clemenson), who later on will tell all the others on the doomed aircraft that he’s figured out “this is a suicide mission”, sits next to Jarrah. Neither notices the other. Meanwhile, pilots and cabin crew prepare for work, making small talk.

On the plane, Greengrass’s camera dwells momentarily on the door closing. It will never open again. Then it’s time for the safety demonstration; of course nobody pays much attention. United 93 takes off, late.

Meanwhile, it seems like business as usual back on the ground, too. Ben Sliney (played by himself) arrives for his first day as national operations manager at the Federal Aviation Administration, the government body with oversight of civil aviation across the US. There are briefings about weather and delays. But then there’s a report of a hijack, and the initial response of the assembled FAA staff at their morning meeting is almost amused, as if some retro 1970s fashion had unexpectedly come back into vogue. “When was the last time we had a hijack?” – “Haven’t seen that in years.”

The scale of the day’s onslaugh soon starts to become clear, though, when an announcement to passengers by hijackers on a different aircraft is accidentally transmitted to the ground. “We have some planes,” says the voice (probably Mohamed Atta, on board American Airlines Flight 11, which hit the World Trade Center); planes, plural, those listening in soon realise.

Around this point one of the few, and minor, flaws in United 93 starts to make itself known: at least on first viewing, it’s not always easy to tell whether we’re watching the air traffic control centre in Boston or Sliney’s own command post. But for the most part what now unfolds is crystal clear, even when the conversations of the controllers, the FAA and later the military, are dominated by technical jargon. (At an air defence headquarters, the reaction to the news of the hijacking is similar to the FAA’s. “Is this a sim?” – “No, real world.”)

Inexorably it continues. About 35-minutes into the film the North Tower of the World Trade Centre is hit; conversation on the ground gets more stressed and more rapid. There are false alarms, confusion, the fog of war.

There’s stress on United 93, too, much of it in the relationship between al-Nami (a hothead, urging that they get the hijacking underway) and Jarrah (charged with flying the plane once they’ve taken over the cockpit, favouring delay, perhaps aware that the longer the flight seems normal the better chance they have of completing their mission).

Inexorably it continues. About 35-minutes into the film the North Tower of the World Trade Centre is hit; conversation on the ground gets more stressed and more rapid. There are false alarms, confusion, the fog of war.

Up to this point United 93 has been essentially an exciting movie, but now—suddenly—the terrorists act, violence erupts on the plane and it becomes a ferocious and desperate film. The pilots are killed, and the hijackers are in control. (As with most of what we see, this is informed guesswork. Nobody survived the flight to report back, but there were phone calls to the ground and a cockpit voice recorder, so even if details are inaccurate the broad sequence of events is reliable.)

And so United 93 carries on, cutting between the panic on the plane and the panic among the authorities on the ground. Eventually, once the passengers learn that other aircraft have been flown into targets, they figure they have—at least—nothing to lose by trying to wrest back control of Flight 93. They have an amateur pilot among them. 

They arm themselves with whatever they can find. The hijackers, particularly al-Nami, realise they’e losing control of the situation. Jarrah in the cockpit is worrying too; they’ve come so far that to fail at this point would be shameful.

Many of the passengers are praying now. So are the hijackers. The struggle is brief, physical, and bloody. The photo of the US Capitol that Jarrah had pinned in the cockpit, reminding him which building to aim for when they reached Washington, is in tatters. The plane’s out of anyone’s control. Powell’s score, which has been ratcheting the stress higher and higher for the final few minutes, swoops down to a final minor chord. Everything ends.

The production of United 93 was intense itself. Greengrass reportedly filmed the onboard events more than a dozen times, sometimes non-stop, and kept the actors playing the terrorists away from those playing passengers so they were never too comfortable with each other. This, its quasi-documentary handheld visual style, and the way that several individuals on the ground play themselves, give it an insistent verisimilitude that won’t let you stop watching; in all the times I have seen the film I have never once thought of the passengers that “they’re just actors”, and the way that we never get much insight into any of the characters adds to rather than detracts from this.

So does the absence of moral underlining. United 93 accepts that audiences are mature enough to make judgements on one of the most notorious events of recent history and it does not go out of its way to redundantly celebrate those who fought back. Nor does it demonise the hijackers, who seem as scared as anyone else by the situation in which they’ve found themselves. (Jarrah calls from the airport to tell someone “I love you”; he’s not fully left his pre-martyrdom life behind and perhaps he doesn’t fully want to.)

Despite that, there are some individually powerful performances, including Sliney’s. Among the terrorists, Abdalla as Jarrah and Harding as al-Nami are memorable, not least in a pre-hijack scene on the plane where they barely speak a word but reveal so much in movements and little facial expressions. Of the passengers, Clemenson as Tom Burnett, and Cheyenne Jackson as Mark Bingham stand out, while Patrick St. Esprit as Major Kevin Nasypany of the Northeast Air Defense Sector command centre is also striking.

Still, it’s essentially a movie that for most of its duration depends on the combined effect of many small performances and moments rather than obvious stars or turning points. There is a “story”, of course, but it’s such a well-known one that to a large extent United 93’s impact is immersive rather than traditionally narrative.

As well as the photographic style, the use of sound contributes much to this, as does John Powell’s outstanding score. Better known for children’s films (although he’s since done two Jason Bourne movies and 2010’s Green Zone with Greengrass), he takes a sparing approach for much of the movie, favouring long-held notes, grand and slightly ominous. As the passengers prepare to fight back, single chords are repeated intermittently with very little variation, building up the suspense, and the music doesn’t really get into full flow until the very end, where it is sonorous and sombre, blending with the beeps of cockpit alarms until finally United 93’s sound comes to dominate its last few moments as much as its visuals do.

United 93 was received with widespread praise from the critics; it won ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Film Editing’ at the BAFTAs, and was nominated in the same categories at the Academy Awards. (It also performed well at the box office, though it wasn’t a major hit.)

Film critic Roger Ebert was one of those who pinpointed the source of the film’s peculiar power: Greengrass, he wrote, “does not exploit, he draws no conclusions, he points no fingers, he avoids ‘human interest’ and ‘personal dramas’ and just simply watches. The movie’s point of view reminds me of the angels in [Wim Wenders’] Wings of Desire. They see what people do and they are saddened, but they cannot intervene.”

This is precisely why United 93 remains not only by far the best film made about 9/11 (only Hulu’s miniseries The Looming Tower comes close), but also one of the finest movies made on the broader topic of violence in the modern world, and its often abrupt terribleness. Greengrass sees that there is no need to editorialise; the thing itself is enough.

USA | 2006 | 111 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Paul Greengrass.
starring: Christian Clemenson, Cheyenne Jackson, David Alan Basche, Peter Hermann, Daniel Sauli, Trish Gates, Corey Johnson, Richard Berlins, Michael J. Reynolds & Khalid Abdalla.