United 93 is one of those all too rare humbling experiences. You know the type. The credits roll. Lights fade up. People leave. However there is no discussion by fellow audience members, simply silence and awe struck contemplation on what they have just witnessed. The last time this reviewer can remember being part of such a moment was after a screening of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), his take on the Columbine high school shootings.
Like Van Sant’s intense, superbly crafted picture, United 93 had already acquired hot potato status prior to its release due to the controversial content inherent. In retrospect it is easy to see why. A minefield of questions arise surrounding ethics and sensitivity towards subject matter. Was it necessary to recreate the final hours of the 44 people on Flight 93? If so how accurate could a recreation be? Would this be a gung ho, flag waving endeavor, demonizing and stereotyping the terrorists? Thankfully such presumptions proved false and director Greengrass has successfully navigated the high wire act he set for himself, making a film that acts as an epitaph to those involved and their spirit in the face of unforeseen, uncontrollable circumstance.
Knowledge of what is to come plays on your mind as a seemingly average day is played out. Aside from the opening scene taking in the terrorist’s preparation, time is split between the air traffic control rooms and the airport lounge before boarding. The semi real time structure makes the first half of the film an unnerving experience; the calm before the storm. As tension increases and events spiral out of control it is the small details that resonate the most, a blip on the radar screen suddenly disappearing or a final, uncomfortable phone call home. Greengrass’s use of a loose, documentary-esque aesthetic, derived from his earlier TV outings The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (1999) and Bloody Sunday (2002), enable him to at first gently play out the normality of the situation and then cut loose in a frenzied and erratic style as the situation erupts.
The use of an excellent, non A-list cast aids proceedings greatly. We have no preconceived baggage of them from other roles, their very ordinariness enabling an instant connection to be made. If an Affleck style square-jawed type were to be included this would merely undercut the whole point of the film, and Greengrass’s biggest virtue, which is simply to play out a reconstruction of the incident focusing solely on the human element with no aspirations to politicise, condemn, judge or throw conspiracy theories into the mix. For the participants of Flight 93 that day this was a fight for survival. Any thoughts regarding country, as US propaganda merchants have played on, were rightly second to that of themselves and family. It is this element that concerns Greengrass, one which he invests with astounding integrity throughout until the hysterical, gritty final reel.