Watching movies professionally, it’s easy to become jaded and immune to the immediate pleasures of a good film (whether those pleasures are escapist or intellectually stimulating). Even when there isn’t a review deadline looming, the old mind is constantly ticking over – mental notes must be made, bits of dialogue filed away for future reference – and one often gets distanced from the film itself. Paul Greengrass’s United 93 cut past all those barriers and reminded me of what the untrammeled movie-watching experience can be like. It was so gripping nearly all the way through that it was hardly possible to think consciously about the filmmaking process – about the use of handheld cameras or non-professional actors, for instance, both of which are extremely well suited to this film.
The bare bones are that this is a superbly made docudrama about one of the four planes hijacked on 9/11 – the one that was meant to hit the Capitol but eventually crashed into a Somerset County field instead, due to passenger intervention. Drawing on information from the black box found at the crash site as well as phone calls made by the doomed passengers from the plane, United 93 recreates what happened onboard, as authentically as possible. (There is, unavoidably, some conjecture but it’s toned down.) Starting with Greengrass’s decision not to have recognisable faces in the cast, there are almost no cinematic flourishes of the sort that could so easily have turned this film into another summer thriller and offended millions of people who believe 9/11 mustn’t be cheapened by standard Hollywood treatment.
Though the scenes on board the flight are very well-handled, the film’s real strength is in its depiction of the on-ground events, specifically the growing confusion in the Federation Aviation Administration and in air control centres around the US early that morning. FAA manager Ben Sliney (playing himself) is headed for a high-level meeting when information comes in that American Airlines 11 may have been hijacked. (At this point, tragically, United 93 is still at Newark airport, waiting for takeoff clearance. With a few minutes here and there, and a clearer picture of what was going on, it might never have become airborne.) Sliney asks to be apprised of future developments, then goes into the meeting room, offhandedly mentions the possible hijacking to his colleagues; they small-talk for a while, try to recall the last time such an incident occurred over their airspace. At this stage, it’s all so routine. But soon, the traffic controllers tracking planes (represented by tiny green dots) on their computer screens lose contact with AA 11. The plane vanishes from the radar and a couple of minutes later there’s a news item on CNN about smoke billowing from one of the World Trade Centre towers…
In these scenes, and in others like them, we see the big achievement of United 93: it takes the most well known, widely chronicled and analysed world event of the past decade and convincingly depicts the way it unfolded in real time – the immediate effect it had on people who had to piece things together minute by minute and didn’t yet know they were seeing something momentous. In his review, Roger Ebert says that the movie’s success stems from its deliberate refusal to see The Big Picture. This is true enough in terms of the effectiveness of the director’s approach – the fact that he doesn’t underline the key moments, thus adding to the sense of veracity. But the success of the film does depend on the viewer’s knowledge of the big picture. If we didn’t know that this was 9/11, some of the scenes in the control room, for instance, might simply have been flat and ponderous (and “uncinematic”) instead of creating the frisson they do. This isn’t a documentary but it isn’t quite a feature film either.
We usually expect the movies we watch to have a basic, identifiable structure. How strange then to find that United 93’s most powerful moments are those of complete chaos, scenes where the viewer doesn’t (and isn’t even expected to) understand everything that is transpiring. In the air control centres and the military command room, we repeatedly hear urgent, important-sounding phrases which suggest that meaningful action is about to be taken by people who know what they are doing. (“I want the coordinates on the location immediately”; “We need to get those birds off the ground, now.”) However, these words are unaccompanied by any action that might conceivably improve the situation. Like the protagonists in Waiting for Godot or Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, these people are impressively purposeful but headed nowhere.
It would be tempting to put all this chaos down to general ineptness, but the film shows us how even the most efficient, professionally managed systems can break down in the face of extraordinary events. One senses that the people in command know their jobs very well (and aviation control includes some of the highest-stress jobs in the world, involving a greater degree of responsibility than most of us can even fathom). Their faces reveal little, even under extreme duress, and this would be reassuring at most times. But now they’re facing a situation no one can reasonably be prepared for, and it’s terrifying to watch people in authority fumbling with inadequate information, disbelief and miscommunication, second-guessing each other, debating the chain of command – until Sliney finally makes the decision to shut down all traffic over US airspace.
In fact, it’s notable that the only time we see people acting with complete conviction is during United 93’s final moments, when the passengers call their families and repeat “I love you” over and over again; and simultaneously in the cockpit, the terrorists invoke the name of God with the same intensity and single-mindedness. These are moments that could so easily have been sensationalised, but they are depicted with as much integrity as possible – as is nearly everything else in this outstanding film.
Overheard at the screening
From man sitting nearby (who, to be fair, was quiet for most of the film): “Arre, what’s the point – these guys don’t even know what they’re doing!” (when the passengers storm the cockpit)
And while exiting, from a young boy: “Yeh Hindi film hoti toh end mein plane bach jaati.”
(Which is a fair enough remark, though he seemed quite disgruntled that the film didn’t end with an item-number song in the clouds.)
[Also see this fine review by Falstaff.]