Cabin Pressure

Washington City Paper | April 28, 2006
Although it will be probed for every possible meaning, United 93 couldn’t be further from allegory. Indeed, writer-director Paul Greengrass’ account of the fourth plane to be hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, is the purest of action flicks. Not only will every viewer know what’s going to happen, but the fundamentals of characterization are inapplicable: The hijackers intend to die, and the passengers realize that they have but one chance to live, so neither have to make any real choices. Both sets of antagonists possess a certainty that is the antithesis of traditional drama.

Greengrass worked from extensive documentation, but he had more leeway than his characters. No one knows exactly what happened outside the cockpit of UA 93, and some will inevitably find the director’s imagining of events either too heroic or not enough so. Still, the basics are inarguable, and Greengrass tries, literally, to cover as many vantage points as possible: He puts the camera almost everywhere almost at once. With the viewpoint in constant motion and the next edit usually only a few seconds away, the film makes Greengrass’ previous docudrama, 2002’s Bloody Sunday, seem almost serene by comparison—and that film was about British troops massacring protesters in Northern Ireland.

United 93 runs only about a half-hour longer than the flight itself, but early reports that the film proceeds in “real time” aren’t quite true. The story begins with a chanting hijacker in a hotel room, and it doesn’t rush to Newark Liberty. For the first half of the movie, the story observes the three other flights hijacked that day, although Greengrass never enters those aircraft. Instead, he watches from air-traffic-control centers in Boston, New York, Cleveland, and Herndon, Va., as well as from the NORAD base in Rome, N.Y. This reenacts the everyman’s view of 9/11: Confusion reigns, and more information comes from CNN than from within the organization. Cool and competent, the ground controllers are the film’s backup heroes, and they apparently don’t object to the characterization: Many of them, including FAA Operations Manager Ben Sliney, play themselves. (He’s also listed as a consultant.)

Given the intense interest in the subject—even if some potential viewers will avoid United 93 precisely because the events of 9/11 are so significant to them—Greengrass could have had tremendous stylistic freedom. What he’s done, however, is conventional. The film is suitably immediate and visceral, and it builds effectively to its climax, which leaves the controllers behind to focus entirely on events inside UA 93. But the opening sequence is hackneyed, and John Powell’s score is a distraction: Strings swell when the chaotic babble of voices is the most appropriate music, and a childlike soprano coos inanely during the final credits.

Such touches mean that United 93 functions more effectively as a catharsis than as an artistic experience. But that would probably be the case even if it were a better movie.

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