Universal Studios, 2006
written and directed by Paul Greengrass
111 minutes, rated R

The Movie:

This remarkable film reconstructs what might have happened aboard United flight 93 on September 11, 2001.  This is the hijacked plane that did not reach its target, but crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after a group of passengers, discovering by telephone that other planes were being flown into buildings, rushed the hijackers in a desperate attempt to retake the plane, or failing that, stop it from reaching its target.  The story is based on meticulous research: extensive interviews with everyone involved on the ground, and those who knew the people on board.

The action on the ground is recreated in detail, and the zeal for accuracy is carried so far that many air traffic controllers and other officials play themselves instead of being played by actors.  These professionals recreate their own actions for the camera, as exactly as possible, as they struggle to sort out the confusing multiplicity of hijackings and collisions.  The action on board the plane, though the details of what happened are unknown in real life, are acted out in as plausible and lifelike a way as possible, so as to blend smoothly with the exacting recreations of events on the ground.  The result looks very much as if there had been a camera crew present at the real events, rather than like a Hollywood production.

It's very easy for a movie about heroism to go very badly wrong.  You can end up with a shallow cheer-jerker that makes tragedy resemble a sports movie such as Miracle, or you can end up with the thudding smarminess of, say, Bruce Willis in Armageddon, or with a flag-waver that draws sneers from the younger and more countercultural parts of the audience.  United 93 avoids all of these traps, by the simple expedient of sticking as closely as possible to the truth.  And the result of this approach is so successful, so riveting and convincing, that whether it intends to or not, it stands as an indictment of the normal Hollywood way of making movies, especially those "based on a true story".

Any normal film would give us lots of brief little scenes designed to highlight the personalities of the various people caught up in disaster.  They'd make sure we caught their names, and some key bit of their backgrounds.  In this movie, nobody says anything like "Hi, I'm Mark Bingham, I'm a former rugby star and a public relations consultant."  In fact, the name Mark Bingham is never even spoken -- we get no introduction to him other than that he's wearing a Cal rugby jersy.  And that's true to life.  Todd Beamer, probably the best known name among the passenger heroes, is even more anonymously depicted.  Tom Burnett is also anonymous, but for some reason he gets the biggest share of screen time, and is presented as a key voice in the decision to fight back.  It's the same with the other passengers; if you don't already know the details of the story, you have to look up articles on the events of the day to figure out who is who.

Furthermore, in the first half of the film, the only passengers that we pay close attention to are the hijackers themselves, as they sweat out the minutes before making their move.  And with them too, we hear only a couple of first names, and those late in the film and lost in Arabic dialogue, much of which is untranslated.

Any normal Hollywood movie about a fight to the death is going to have a huge amount of macho bluster and posturing and chest-puffing, or if not that, then heart-tugging inspirational speechery.  We see it so constantly that we don't notice it anymore... until it's suddenly gone, as in this film.  Its absence is so startling and total that it forces us to reevaluate every other Hollywood "hero" we ever rooted for, as we now see the falsity of their self-aggrandizing poses.

Also, any normal movie is going to smooth down the dialogue and use it to build a series of clearly demarked plot points.  This movie recreates the jabber of real control towers, command centers, and military bases.  By any ordinary movie standards the dialogue is repetitive, unclear, and full of confusion and irrelevancy.  Yet it builds tension as effectively as any suspense thriller, and draws you in as completely as any well-acted melodrama.  Paul Greengrass, in the director's commentary, explains that his intent is to show the flow of information, to illustrate the difficulties and delays in the process of people in different locations coming to understand what was happening.  And of course, the key to the choices that everyone made, on and off the plane, was how much they knew at any particular time.

Normal movies also make much heavier use of music.  Though it does have a score, there are long stretches where music is absent, and the music that is used is mostly bare and minimal.  Another counter-Hollywood choice that turns out to greatly strengthen the film is the complete avoidance of big-name stars in the cast, and even medium-sized name actors -- in fact, you probably won't recognize a single face.  The acting in this film cannot be critiqued by any normal criteria, because it is so unlike the craft that is normally practiced by that name.  Many of the performers are non-actors: the two pilots are played by real-life pilots, for instance.  And as Greengrass says, "Something magical happens when you create film sets and people them with actors and non-actors... the actors stop acting, and the non-actors start to act.  And they meet somewhere in the middle."  What I can say about the performers is higher praise than most big-name actors ever earn: their behavior seems so natural that you almost immediately stop thinking of them as actors at all.

Once the action gets underway, the film unfolds in real time; one minute on screen for one minute of actual events.  (Events are more telescoped in the early portion, before Flight 93 takes off.)  This approach extended to how scenes were shot: events in each location were reenacted at a real-time pace, filming in takes up to an hour long.  This is again contrary to the normal Hollywood approach, and again a highly succesful choice.

In sum, it breaks all the commonly understood rules of what is supposed to make a movie reach its audience effectively, and works anyway.  Which means, even if you allow that the film's subject makes it a special case, that it's time to throw out some of those rules.

Though it's not saying much against undistinguished competition, United 93 is definitely the finest film I've seen so far this year.  The only criticism I have is that it makes somewhat overliberal use of shaky handheld cameras.  Shaky-cam is unfortunately a major fad in Hollywood right now, and Paul Greengrass is apparently not immune to the current tendency to overuse the technique.

Of course, when a movie is based on real life, questions of its quality as art are often secondary to the question of truth.  Especially in a case like this, where rather than just styling itself as "inspired by" real events, as is the fashion nowadays, it seeks to base itself as solidly as possible on research about the real events... which is indeed the only approach that respects the fallen as they should be respected.  So: how true is this film?

There are several possible ways the plane might have crashed.  The popular assumption is mostly that the passengers wrestled the hijackers in the cockpit, and either deliberately dove the plane at the ground or, more likely, just created a chaos in which nobody could keep control of the plane.  This version is what is shown in the movie.  But the best public knowledge we have, based on the cockpit voice recorder, makes it nearly certain that in real life, the passengers never broke through into the cockpit, but were at the end still fighting to get the door open, at which point the hijackers either accidentally (due to distraction by the struggle) or deliberately (the view endorsed by the 9/11 Commission) allowed the plane to crash.  The flight data recorder is said to have logged a very steep dive at the end, and ground witnesses say the plane was upside down when it struck.  (The film includes this.)  Another possibility: the hijackers apparently responded at some point to the passenger assault by tossing the plane around with random tilts and turns in order to knock the passengers off their feet (the film includes this, though it doesn't depict the severity of throwing around that the passengers were likely to have experienced) and this may eventually have overstressed some part of the plane; some believe it caused an engine to fall off.  Finally, there are those who believe that the plane was shot down from outside.  No evidence for this has come forth as far as I know, and it appears to be just the sort of automatic conspiracy-theorizing that an event like September 11 will attract whether there is evidence or not.  This can be dismissed much more easily than, say, the question of why no picture of the Pentagon damage seems to show any plane parts.

In studying what is known from passengers' telephone calls, I found several minor points where the movie was either in the wrong or in doubtful territory.  For example, it shows the passengers being kept in their seats in coach class, where the phone reports say they were made to sit on the floor in the galley.  It shows one hijacker making a fake bomb out of wire, a battery, and modeling clay, whereas a passenger described the fake bomb as just a "red box".  The movie shows the hijackers entering the cockpit by forcing a flight attendant at knifepoint to give the proper signal, but it's also been claimed that they actually got one guy in just by dressing him in a fake pilot's uniform and having him ask to use the guest-officer rumble seat.  But these are fairly trivial discrepancies.  The real uncertainties are with the final battle.  It's all complete guesswork from the moment the passengers charge forward.  When the film shows Jeremy Glick as the frontmost man in the charge (because he had judo training), Mark Bingham as the one who fells the bomb-carrier with a fire extinguisher, and Todd Beamer as the one who gets the bomb away from him and yells "I got it, it's a fake!", that's all pure supposition.

So this story is not the truth.  But neither is it a feel-good whitewash.  If anything it actually underplays the bravery and determination of the passengers fighting back, showing a hesitancy about the start of the final charge that is at odds with what people on the ground heard over the phone.  Overall, though the grounds may be dubious for showing the passengers wrestling the hijackers inside the cockpit -- this being the one point where Greengrass confesses that he made an artistic decision rather than one based on the preponderance of evidence -- what the movie shows is overall as reasonable a guess as any, at least while leaving out controversial and unproven ideas; I'm sure if the rest of us did our own versions, we'd each be equally open to criticisms.

The DVD:

With a normal movie, the usual question is how many extras and novel features they managed to shovel onto the disc.  In this case, though, the main question is whether the DVD packaging manages to stay tasteful.  It does.  There's no promotional noise before the conventional main menu, there is only one trailer and it's for a 9/11 documentary (Twin Towers, which apparently focuses mainly on the New York City police and firefighters who responded to the attack), and there is a "memorial page" which gives a brief biography of each one of the passengers and crew on the flight.  There's a making-of doc called United 93: The Families And The Film.  As the title implies, this avoids the usual practice just interviewing the cast and crew for promotional puffery, and instead shows interviews with the loved ones of the people on the plane, and shows some of the actors sitting down with them to learn about the people they would play.  The impression it leaves behind is of how little of these characters the film could show us.  There's a director's commentary, and audio tracks dubbed in Spanish and French, and a Descriptive Video Service track.  There are subtitles, of course, and these can be quite helpful if you want to follow the quiet, inconsequential background dialogue... and learn some of the names of the people speaking.

The commentary doesn't add as much as one might hope; Greengrass speaks slowly, and mostly just gives emphasis or background to things we already know about the film.  He says things like, "particularly on the air traffic control side... we made -- we tried to make no concessions to things being comprehensible.  There was no attempt made to explain jargon, for instance... because again I felt, if this film was going to feel real, it needed to be quite challenging in that way.  It would put the audience in a ringside view of these events, rather than having them explained to them.  And it's my belief... [that] way of making no concessions to explaining things actually makes it easier to understand, because you get to the core of it."

The film transfer looks good.  I did not notice any digitization artifacts such as posterization, and the 2.35 aspect ratio is preserved via anamorphic letterboxing.  (A full-screen version is also available -- just like any other film buff would, I recommend avoiding that version.)

There is a two disc "limited edition" version of the package available -- the second disc containing a 48 minute documentary titled Chasing Planes: Witnesses to 9/11.  It consists mainly of talking-head interviews with the ground controllers, illustrated with snippets from the movie and bits of news footage.  It's a tribute to the realism of United 93 that this documentary adds relatively little to it.  It will mainly be of interest to those who want to explore all the details of the situation... such as conspiracy theorists.  They'll find quite a bit to explain away, such as the reports of Lt. Col. Steven O'Brien of the Air National Guard and his crew, who were flying a C130 cargo plane that crossed paths with American Airlines flight 77 (which controllers had temporarily gotten mixed up with flight 11, which by then had already crashed).  They were told to follow the hijacked airliner, and eventually witnessed, from some miles off, its crash into the Pentagon.  In the closing minutes, they directly address conspiracists by having about five people all chime in agreeing that flight 93 was not shot down, and couldn't have been as the fighters were no closer than a hundred miles when it crashed.  Those who aren't fascinated by such detail probably have little need for the two-disc package.