Another day, another morning, not unlike the ones before,
The sun was shining without warning of the tragedy in store.
Another day of normal business, little slated to befall,
The kind to sink into the past without a reason to recall.
Some went about their own routines and kissed their families goodbye,
No knowledge of the future scenes to note suspicion in the sky.
Some woke to smoke and disbelief at holes in buildings unforeseen,
And average folk observed in grief the horrors on their TV screen.
A few of those who woke that day believing they’d have many more,
Above the fields of Pennsylvania, heard the early sins of war.
They perished there as victims of a sudden sorrow we regret,
But challenged it as selfless heroes whom we never will forget.
MPAA rating: R
After hearing so many positive reviews of United 93, I decided I ought to watch it myself, and though I had hoped to see it around the anniversary of 9/11, its power doesn’t rely on when it is seen. Many films based on history try to recreate events accurately, but even if they avoid anachronisms and errors, they rarely transcend their status as a re-creation. Even with historical films I love like Titanic and Chariots of Fire, the presence of recognizable stars, artistic license, and that Hollywood polish belie the fact that I am watching a movie. United 93 is one of the few films that suspended that understanding and temporarily convinced me that I could be watching real events.
Obviously this was the goal for director Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips), who purposely employed hand-held cameras for their realism and chose unknown actors or, in the case of the ground crews, many of the actual flight controllers who were working on September 11, 2001. The events of 9/11 are widely known, and by focusing on one plane’s story, the film never lets us forget that the viewer is watching a tragedy in progress. Because United Airlines Flight 93 was the only plane where the passengers fought back, its story is clearly the most dramatic in nature, yet its narrative is as convincing as a documentary and never feels theatrical.
From the time of the plane’s takeoff, events play out in real time. Normal people go about their business, making phone calls, taking pills, ordering breakfast, chatting about their kids, and ignoring the four overly silent Arabs who board Flight 93 out of Newark. Because we all know what will happen, the tension builds naturally, as reports come in of American 11 and United 175, which targeted the World Trade Center before Flight 93 had even been hijacked. Realistic interchanges between the air traffic controllers in different cities and the military reflect the confusion of that day, along with all the fear and uncertainty. When the awaited hijacking actually does happen, the tension and anticipation reset as the hostages, like the terrorists before, wait for the right moment to make their move. Difficult decisions and teary phone calls and desperate prayers are made, and even though I knew the outcome, the film made me hope and believe that the passengers might be successful.
Perhaps the most affecting scene is the glimpse we get of the field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the plane crashed. On one of our vacations, my mom and I visited the Flight 93 National Memorial there and walked along the wall of names and saw the boulder that marks the impact point. It was cold and nearly deserted at that time of day, but I got a sense of the importance and grief behind the memorial. Though the film doesn’t even attempt to name the passengers, I felt United 93 only deepened my admiration and sorrow for these fallen heroes who never planned to be heroes.
Best line: (flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw, making a heartbreaking phone call) “But, baby, I promise you, if I get out of this, I’m quitting tomorrow. I’ll quit tomorrow. I promise, I’ll quit tomorrow.”
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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