"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, September 11, 2009

DVD of the Week: United 93: 2-Disc Limited Edition

On September 11, 2001, four commercial airplanes were hijacked by teams of terrorists and used as missiles to strike twice in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The fourth plane never reached its intended target and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. United 93 (2006) dramatizes the events leading up to and speculates on what happened on this fourth plane before it lost control and crashed into the ground killing everyone on board.

The inevitable question a film like United 93 raised at the time of its release was, it is still too soon for a film like this to be made? And if you do make a commercial film about 9/11 what kind of approach do you take that doesn’t exploit such a sensitive event and do a disservice to the people who died tragically on that horrible day? What about the families of the people who died? How would they feel about a movie dramatizing what happened to their loved ones?

And so it was with much trepidation when United 93 was announced but some of the concerns were put to rest when it was revealed that Paul Greengrass would be writing and directing the movie. He had previously directed the powerful Bloody Sunday (2002), a gut-wrenching docudrama of the Derry massacre in Ireland on January 30, 1972. If anyone could keep true to the facts and not pander to sappy sentimentalism or flag-waving patriotism it would be Greengrass.

United 93 begins with the hijackers, showing them praying in their hotel room and getting ready for their mission. We see them enter the airport and mingle with hundreds of other travelers just like on any other day. There is a certain amount of dread as we see the flight crew and passengers board the plane, overhearing their trivial conversations with the knowledge that they only have a few hours left to live. With that knowledge it makes the film that much harder to watch.

The first half of United 93 shows how the air traffic controllers in New York (and other cities) dealt with the events that occurred on 9/11. We see the systems in place to deal with crisises but nothing on this level and communication begins to break down. The question you find yourself asking is why didn’t they ground all flights after the first hijacking was identified? United Flight 93 might not have taken off or, at the very least, turned around shortly after take off. Of course, this is easy to say in hindsight and it is a credit to these men and women that they were able to piece together the various hijackings as fast as they did. They come across as very professional and competent considering the incredible amount of stress and pressure they were under dealing with the chaos of events on that day.

The second half of the film depicts the actual hijacking of United Flight 93 in real time. We see one of the terrorists assemble a bomb in one of the plane’s washrooms while the others are apprehensively biding their time until they’re ready to make their move. The tension during these scenes is almost unbearable even though we know what’s going to happen next. What does happen is extremely upsetting as the terrorists start killing some of the flight crew in a brutal, savage way that is messy and horrific. This atmosphere never lets up from that point on as we watch the poor passengers calling loved ones, seeing their sweaty, scared faces and making desperate plans to attack the terrorists and take back control of the cockpit.

What makes this film work so well is that it was made outside of the Hollywood studio system and this allowed Greengrass to cast unknown actors, character actors and even actual people who were witness to what happened that day. By doing this we aren’t distracted from what is going on in the film like an easily identifiable movie star would. Another element that stands out is the use of hand-held cameras to give a sense of immediacy commonly associated with cinema verite. It also gives a documentary feel early on when we see the plane being boarded and all the work done to get it ready. It is this kind of attention to detail that gives United 93 a certain level of authenticity.

United 93 is a film you don’t watch, you endure. It is very upsetting to watch (as it should) but is an important film nonetheless because it shows, with unflinching honesty, what might have happened on that plane based on phone conversations from passengers before they died. United 93 is an important film because we must not forget what happened on 9/11 and what these people went through and the sacrifices they made. This film is a fitting tribute to them.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by writer/director Paul Greengrass. He mentions that the film originally had a different opening that took place in Afghanistan with a meeting between Osama Bin Laden and the man who planned 9/11. Greengrass has a tendency to speak slowly and ponderously but is very articulate when he explains his intentions for a given scene or talks about the events of that day. He points out that several of the air traffic controllers in the movie are the actual people who were working on 9/11. Greengrass tends to spend a little too much time talking about “the systems” that were in place on that day and how they broke down (in terms of communication) because what was happening was so unimaginable. He gets a little pretentious at times but does speak knowledgeably about the film.

United 93: The Families and the Film” focuses on the families of the people who died on United Flight 93. Greengrass felt that it was the right time to make a film about what happened on that plane and went to the families to ask if it was okay with them. Several of them are interviewed and talk about their thoughts on the film and how they feel about their loved ones being depicted by actors. To that end, we see some of the cast meeting with the family members of the person they portrayed in the film and it is obviously an emotional moment for all involved.

“Memorial Pages” provides brief biographical sketches and moving tributes to each flight crew member and passenger on United Flight 93. This is a great idea and a fitting tribute to these people, amply illustrating how each and every one of them were unique and memorable with their own distinctive lives.

Finally, on the 2-disc Limited Edition, there is an additional extra – “Chasing Planes – Witnesses to 9/11,” a documentary about the men and women who tracked all the planes on that day and how they dealt with the crisis as it was unfolding. There are interviews with many of the air traffic controllers working that day some of whom played themselves in the movie.


  1. This is a very powerful film. I found myself going through all sorts of emotions while watching it.

  2. Yeah, it's a tough film to watch. I don't think I've watched it since the first time but it is well worth checking out if you haven't seen it.

  3. I remember first watching this after it was released to DVD. And you're quite correct. It is one to be endured rather than enjoyed. When it ends, you're pretty much left stunned (and Keith is also quite right in that all sorts of emotions bubble up while watching it). And I'm sure the documentary style that Greengrass used only heightens the response to the events that unfold in the film.

    A few years have passed now since that viewing, and I find myself rolling back the first thought I had upon reaching the end credits - that I'd never watch this again. And J.D., I think your excellent review of this powerful film is what's spurring me. This is timely, and United 93 is well worth the second look. Thank you for this.

  4. le0pard13:

    Thank you for your heartfelt comments. Having lived in NYC when 9/11 happened, it is still tough for me to watch films like this or even documentaries but I really liked BLOODY SUNDAY and wanted to give this film a go and was glad that I did as I feel it is an important film. But maybe you're right, it is time to watch this film again.

  5. I actually only got around to watching this not just a year ago. It took me THAT LONG to do it.

    The movie was what I figured it would be, and as such was excellent.

    Still hard to watch? You bet your ass. But I'm glad I did.

    Fine piece, J.D. You did it justice.

  6. Unknown:

    Thank you for the kind words. It is a tough film to watch but a rewarding one, nonetheless. I certainly understand why it would take you so long to finally get around to seeing it. It's not exactly a film that invites repeated viewings but I am glad I saw it.