United 93, a re-enactment of the events leading up to the crash, in a Pennsylvania field, of United Airlines flight 93 on the morning of 9/11 captures both the calm and the chaos of that historic day.
The opening minutes of the film focus on the events just before flight 93 became airborne. We see the terrorists rising for Morning Prayer and carefree passengers and crew going about their day-to-day business. Once in the air the film cuts between the plane’s occupants and military personnel at the Northeast Air Defense Sector and air traffic controllers in New York and Boston. Director Paul Greengrass unfolds the story in real time for the duration of the 91-minute flight.
Greengrass has pieced together his version of events using recordings of cell phone calls made to loved ones in the final moments of the hijacked flight.
Shot in a quasi-documentary style United 93 is harrowing. Because we know the story and the tragic outcome, a sense of dread builds from the opening moments of the film, even before the first of the planes is hijacked. As the events of the day unfurl a sense of confusion develops as the people on the ground try to make sense of what has happened. Scrambling to prevent any more loss of life the military and air traffic controllers struggle to open a clear line of communication that will enable them to work together. Greengrass effectively illustrates the confusion, without pointing fingers or assigning blame for the slow response time.
The actual hijacking of flight 93 doesn’t happen for almost an hour into the film, but when it does Greengrass places the viewer directly in the action. Shot with jittery cameras, it feels as though you are aboard the plane as the chaos and violence of the day erupts.
The intimate shooting style, coupled with Greengrass’ decision not to name any of the on-board characters—your cabin mates on planes are usually anonymous—lends an air of realism to the film. These are average people in extraordinary circumstances and all are treated respectfully as they heroically try to thwart the hijackers plan. Greengrass doesn’t emotionally exploit the situation, he simply presents it in a way that is gut-wrenching, but not manipulative.
With his handling of this material director Paul Greengrass proves himself to be one of the great directors currently making movies. This is a film not simply to be seen, but to be experienced.