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Both sides fighting back
A film review of UNITED 93 by Camus

A Summer Side Note:

The summer is upon us and as this site's unofficial more mainstream movie correspondent, I was hoping to be able to say something positive and reassuring about the latest summer releases like 'it's not that bad out there in Tinsel Town'. Oh, but it is. I've seen Mission Impossible III, X Men: The Last Stand and The Da Vinci Code and would you believe it. I can't think of a single valid reason to write a word on any of them, much as I have a spleen itching to vent. Let's just say hopes are not unrealistically raised this year for a summer movie to care about. Cars may do it but why do I feel that a closer Pixar alliance with Disney cannot possibly be healthy? Superman? Too fond of Reeve's first one despite Bryan Singer's involvement and the wholesale kidnapping of Brando's and Williams' contributions to the late seventies movie. I'm far more partial to Singer's Holmes-inspired TV show, House. Feeling the same apathy towards Miami Vice despite Michael Mann's authorial stamp, and what has Colin Farrell actually done to deserve such A-List adoration? No. The only real chance of having some mainstream Hollywood fun this summer is with (gasp) Jerry Bruckheimer (I have a very clean tongue, what with all that soap). I think it's Captain Jack Sparrow to the rescue – at least I hope it is...

So the best of the summer movies so far is a true story of forty-four very real and horrifying deaths five years ago… Not popcorn material at all.

"...presenting a believable truth."
Paul Greengrass, director, quoted on the official web site.


Hell. If United 93 was close to how it really happened then the valiant struggle for control of the fourth aircraft on September 11th, 2001, was as horrific a situation to be in as I can imagine. Dying, scared and confused in the flash of an explosive impact – as happened to the passengers on the other three planes – was one thing. But knowing for a full twenty minutes that you were going to be the hapless victims of a suicide mission must induce a terror that would cripple the mind. Or did the unspeakable situation into which these men and women were plunged free their minds to act? Each of the victims has been nominated for a Congressional Medal of Honour (sorry, 'Honor') for outstanding bravery (trust the US government to find heroes where crucially and importantly they were simply ordinary people, two of whom were killed at the start of the hijack who by definition knew nothing of the aircraft's fate). Well, knowing what the other passengers knew, would you sit there and do nothing?

Paul Greengrass, the British director responsible for one of the best mainstream thrillers of recent years (The Bourne Supremacy) and no stranger to edgier fare, commands the frame of United 93. It twitches nervously as if the camera operator was trying to dislodge an insect that had breached his clothing. This meta-hand-held style is here to stay (that is until the next visual style kicks in) and for this dramatized documentary, it works superbly well. Some critics have dubbed this extraordinarily faithful real-time film the 'feel bad' movie of the summer. Well, I can sympathise. Watching it is painful. You want the bloody terrorists/freedom fighters (pick your side) to get it over with. I do not say 'pick your side' lightly. I simply mean that I found the big 9/11 question 'why?' – which came from a lot of US citizens – startling in its naiveté and after Iraq's recent Al-Haditha's massacre of innocents, whose side you see things from is a matter of informed personal choice. Flight 93 featured two sides fighting back; one, a radical movement hijacking both Islam and the aircraft that regarded the US as the 'Great Satan' for some pretty sound reasons despite the religious dogma and civilian-killing methodology and two, ordinary Americans faced with a choice. Go down with a whimper or go out fighting.

Watching this movie is like waiting for the dentist's chair but I mean that in the best possible way. You are supposed to feel uncomfortable, powerless and disbelieving. Oh, and let's add empathy. You are continually asking yourself "What would I do?" in the same situation and you also will the crew and passengers not to take off. Because of a delay, most of the passengers of the doomed flight had already worked out what was going on as all three earlier targets had been hit. As Greengrass reminds us, these forty-four people were the first to inhabit a post-9/11 world, the first of us fully conscious of how things had changed. The significance of this knowledge to the passengers ended a few minutes after 10am on that extraordinary morning.

There are very few details not generally known about 9/11 but United 93 reveals two nuggets that, to my knowledge, were significant for very human reasons. Probably the first two well known facts about Flight 93 are the urgent calls of love from those who knew they were about to die and passenger Todd Beamer's telephonic pronouncement of "Let's roll!" In the last desperate minutes of Flight 93's existence, we learn that one of the passengers was a pilot (a light aircraft pilot but a pilot nonetheless) and another was an Air Traffic Controller for many years. Do you know what that meant to those knowing they were in the hands of suicidal fanatics?


In the last minutes, there was hope. I didn't know whether to cry or scream. As John Cleese reminded us in Clockwise, it's not despair that's so debilitating. It's the hope that despair could be averted at the last minute. There was a last minute on Flight 93. It bloomed in an explosion on New Jersey soil with the echoes of some insane incantation to an imaginary deity recorded for the somber crash investigators to pore over.

If it is even vaguely possible to remove the baggage from the subject matter, United 93 the movie would still be a real nail-biter (but no one would believe it as fact, I mean people don't commit suicide to make a point, do they?) As Jonathan Miller pointed out in his insightful three-part documentary A Brief History of Disbelief, the fanatics and the victims had religious belief in common. In one telling scene in the movie, everyone's praying. As one faces death, it's not uncommon for rational people to turn to an irrational belief in God. It's usually in the form of the impossible prayer – "May two and two not equal four... just for me... Right now..." The hijackers, conditioned into believing some inordinately odd things about an afterlife, go to their deaths screaming the name of their own deity. Well, yeah. You could pray to the equivalent set of imaginary friends that the hijackers answer to. Allah says "Kill people in my name!" God says "I agree with Allah, in principle." Just check out the Old Testament. I suppose it all comes out in the wash. All that blood, earthly drains stained ochre...

Is it entertaining to watch a realistic portrayal of forty-four deaths in a matter-of-fact re-enactment of an horrific, historical event? Yes. It is. But in a very empathic manner. There's a little voice whispering "happy it wasn't you on board, aren't you?" all the way through. Technically the film is solid. John Powell's music is understated (as it bloody well should be) and very effective. I happen to think his score for The Bourne Supremacy, is absolutely extraordinary – powerful and lyrical in equal measures. Here Powell gets to give us somber drums to open and rising orchestral paranoia when required. To be frank, this story needed no musical accompaniment but as convention dictates – as drama dictates – Powell delivers the goods with sensitivity and élan.

The performances are all excellent in (mostly) their utter everyday banality. It's an unfussy cast with one or two 'real' people playing their own parts in this re-enactment. The performance that stands out is that of Khalid Abdalla as lead terrorist/freedom fighter pilot Ziad Jarrah. Looking somewhat alarmingly like A.A. Gill, the defiantly Scottish 'Times' TV and food critic, we are invited to feel his pain, his indecision just by having the camera close to him. He's the terrorist/freedom fighter who has trained to fly the plane and the movie humanizes him in as much as a man with his qualities can be humanized. We think of 'humanizing' as softening the edges, letting a little bit of understanding in. But if we acknowledge what it is to be human, what it is to be one of us with all our potential malevolence, our capacity for harm, then the verb crystallizes into a brittle contradiction. That apart, Abdalla successfully communicates the fear and opposing forces that had to be flooding his nervous system as the men went into action.

Yes, there is an amazing sense of "Get the bastards!" as the passengers hurl down the aisle and attack the hijackers but that really is as 'Hollywood' as it gets. The ensuing struggle as two of the hijackers go down (it's never explicitly shown but you have to imagine they were probably beaten to pulps) is heart-rending – who in the audience does not know how this story ends? Hands fight in close ups as we look out of the cockpit window. Thankfully there are no external shots of Flight 93 crashing, no fancy nods to genre expectation. This film does justice to something other than the victims and the hijackers although it pays great respect to all participants. It does justice to what we know as the truth of that event. I don't think Greengrass or anyone else could have done a better job.

United 93

USA / UK / France 2006
93 mins
Paul Greengrass
Tim Bevan
Eric Fellner
Lloyd Levin
Paul Greengrass
Barry Ackroyd
Clare Douglas
Richard Pearson
Christopher Rouse
John Powell
production design
Dominic Watkins
Khalid Abdalla
David Alan Basche
Christian Clemenson
Cheyenne Jackson
Ben Sliney
review posted
8 June 2006