Review: United 93
United 93, a taut recreation of the September 11, 2001, United Air Lines flight in which passengers counterattacked Islamic suicide hijackers, is powerful as a perceptual-bound experience. Unfortunately, that's the sum of it; the motion picture, written and directed by Paul Greengrass, achieves nothing else.
Like The Bourne Supremacy, also directed by Greengrass, United 93 is shot with an instable camera in the sort of dreadful distortion Hollywood currently favors. The action, while gripping, depends largely on what one already knows of that black day.
It was a monstrous act of war against the United States—the worst in history—yet you'll never know why from this movie, which presents the long-premeditated plot without using the words Islam, Moslem or Islamic. There is zero historical context in a movie predicated on a major event in history.
To Greengrass' credit, there is also no mistaking that the savages slitting throats are fundamentally men of faith. Prior to boarding the jet, they are seen shaving body hair in compliance with their religion's rules, and they move about the cabin in a state of prayerful paralysis—like post-lobotomy animals whose eyes are frozen with fear.
On the ground, a cast of hundreds bark frantically for more information about the quartet of hijackings that destroyed 3,000 lives, the jets, the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. They are powerless—it falls to an air traffic bureaucrat (Ben Sliney) to declare that it's war, which no one (certainly not Congress) else does—and United 93's chief value may be its demonstration of the Bush administration's total incompetence in conducting self defense.
When military jets are finally scrambled, they're flying in the wrong direction. United 93 shows the effects, if not the cause, of a government devoted more to Christian socialism than to self-interest. This is turning the other cheek in practice (and it's up to these same people to stop a nuclear attack from Iran). If a third of this stuff is true, with officials like Sliney, constantly heard crying "Gee-Zuss Christ!", running the government, the nation is doomed.
It never should have fallen to a band of airline passengers to wage the only act of self-defense on that day, but it did, as Greengrass shows in real time, through indistinguishable flashes of action with poorly established characters.
Watching them charge the cockpit is spine chilling. However, Greengrass, careful to show the progression, does so at the expense of how and why it happened. There are huddled conferences, barely audible whispers of half-baked plans and a smattering of those famously desperate phone calls, many of which are moving, though only because we know how it ends, not because we know who's on screen.
The movie fails to provide the context of men and women planning to defy Moslem terrorists bent on destroying the West. By known accounts, the passengers executed an heroic act of self-interest proving they were united in seeking to live life on earth, not to enter an afterlife. Here, their rallying cry, "Let's roll," uttered by passenger Todd Beamer—we also know a passenger yelled "Let's get them!" before breaking into the cockpit—is muttered as an afterthought.
One gets a good sense of the agonizingly short timeline, and the cast is sufficient to the movie's demands. But crucial elements are missing, not the least of which are the individual personalities and what each passenger stood to lose or gain. Essential, defining characteristics are lost and, in the end, the naturalism trivializes an historic act of resistance to the worst attack on America.
When some of the passengers finally charge the enemy-occupied cockpit, it's more of a collective push than the tightly scripted plan of some of the best and brightest minds in America. Maybe that's how it happened, but I doubt it—those phone transcripts show an indomitable American spirit, rationally developed and applied, a fact which is missing from the movie.
Those who feel a need to see United 93 to stoke the sense of outrage at being attacked—and of not annihilating the enemy's state sponsors—are not going to find much beyond a visceral recreation of what was real not five years ago, and those for whom the outrage never subsided do not need to see this movie.
Originally posted on Box Office Mojo, April 2006