Imagine that it's a calm, clear Tuesday morning in the fall. You have an early morning flight to catch. You yawn your way to Newark airport in a taxi, plod your way through security, go sit in the waiting area outside your boarding gate. There's the usual crowd of people around you – a few businessmen in suits, a couple of elderly people, some young people who are probably students. You pull out your cellphone, make a few calls. The pilots pass by and go into the plane, then the airhostesses . Eventually boarding is announced and you make your way to your seat in the plane, dump your stuff in the overhead luggage compartment, settle in for a long flight. It's a pretty empty flight so you've got plenty of space. At first it seems like you're taking off on time, the plane pushes back from the gate on schedule, then your captain announces that you're stuck in a long queue of planes waiting to depart. It's going to be an extra half hour. You groan inwardly. You promise yourself never to fly from Newark / on United again. When the flight finally does take off you breathe a sigh of relief, pull out your crossword, wonder how long breakfast will be. It's just another early morning commuter flight.
Except maybe it's not. Maybe the date is the 11th of september 2001 and you're two minutes away from being thrust into the impossible situation of being a hostage on a suicide mission intending to ram this plane you're on into a building somewhere. How would you know? And more importantly, how would you respond? What would it do if it were you?
That's exactly the question that the new film United 93 leaves you asking. The real genius of this film is the way it makes that flight and the crisis that hits it (and more generally, hits America) seem so frighteningly real. Director Paul Greengrass achieves that effect by breaking away from the standard process of disaster film making, and refusing to give you any background on the people involved. The first time you see the people on United Flight 93 is when they show up in the security lounge. There is no back story on any of them. You are not shown them leaving their homes, or told who they are or what they do. You are not even told their names. All you know about them is what the other passengers in the plane know about them – they are the guy in the sports jacket, the guy in the baseball hat – and if you trust them or watch them in the moment of crisis it is because of the courage and resourcefulness that they show, not because you have been primed to watch them beforehand. And it's this anonymity that gives the movie its flavour of authenticity, that insists that this is a movie about an event, about something that happened to us collectively – it is the story of what happened to people, not the story of what happened to one person.
People have pointed out that this anonymity is Greengrass's way of getting over the knotty problem of how to celebrate the heroism of one or the other person, without dishonouring others who lost their lives, and who, for all we know, may have showed equal, if not greater bravery. But I think there is a deeper reason for this anonymity.Greengrass 's biggest problem here, it seems to me, is hindsight. We all know what happened that fateful day, we've all seen the news coverage, the images are burned permanently into our memories. It would be easy for us to 'know' what was coming in this movie, easy to anticipate every response of the people involved. Yet were we to do this, there would be no emotional impact in the movie left. By denying us any knowledge of who the people involved are before they so dramatically enter our lives, by insisting that we experience the events on the plane (and on the ground) as if we were really there and it were happening to us, Greengrass draws a veil over our foreknowledge, and allows us to experience the shock of the terrible events of that day as though they were happening in real time. And that is the only thing that makes the movie a success.
There is much not to like in this movie, and it would be easy to dismiss it (as Manohla Dargis, being her usual obtuse self, does in the New York Times) as being unnecessary (as though everything else we watched were absolutely essential), but you have to see the movie in context. Or rather, it's because you can't see it out of context, because it is entirely impossible to separate your response to the movie as a work of cinematic art, from your response to the events that it describes, that you have to admire Greengrass 's achievement. There are many, many ways in which this could have been a really bad movie – overly sentimental, overly cliched, overly exploitative. Greengrass is walking an extraordinarily thin line here – a step wrong one way and he would be accused of using the suffering of others for his own ends, a step wrong the other way and he would be pilloried for downplaying the courage of the passengers on United 93. That he comes through without doing either is a minor miracle by itself – one that is achieved through a combination of overwhelming empathy (Greengrass even manages to find pity in his heart for the terrorists) and absolute honesty. This is not a dramatic film – it is a viscerally undramatic film – and that's why it works.
Perhaps the finest bits of the movie come in the first half, and are not necessarily centred in the flight itself. For me, the most compelling and moving parts of the film were the ones that showed the people on the ground – the FAA, the ATC, the military – all struggling to come to grips with what was happening. If United 93 succeeds it is because it takes one so convincingly back to the bewilderment of those initial moments, showing you the ways in which ordinary men and women struggled to come to terms with this new reality that had dropped in on them literally out of their blue. There is a moment in the film where the people on the ground, who are still trying to figure out what exactly is going on, watch the second plane ram into the world trade centre, live on CNN. Greengrass captures perfectly the shock of that event, the feeling of being struck by an almost physical blow, the head-shaking instant as you try to convince yourself to believe, against every instinct of self-preservation, that this could really be happening, that the world could really have shattered this completely. It is the inevitability of that confusion, of that struggle to comprehend, that is this movie's main emotional takeaway.
Once the action switches almost entirely to the plane (Greengrass having established that nothing the people on the ground can do is going to save the people on United 93) the movie, in my view, loses its authentic feel. The problem is twofold. First, no doubt because it would be an issue for the families of the passengers,Greengrass is reluctant to show any dissent with the idea of storming the cabin and bringing down the terrorists. This seems incredibly hard to believe. Sure, the passengers have found out (through telephone calls home) that the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon have been hit, but these are garbled accounts heard from friends and family – can we really believe that in thepre -9/11 world, when such an attack was unthinkable and conventional wisdom was always to offer no resistance to hijackers, that the passengers would, almost without exception have agreed to the almost certainly suicidal storming of the cockpit in the face of four armed men, one of whom as in possession of what may or not have been a bomb. Surely there would have been more resistance to the idea, surely someone would have objected more strongly, argued that they should sit tight and not provoke the terrorists.Greengrass has the passengers make a few token comments to this effect, but in general, the speed at which this group of total strangers get their heads around the idea that they are doomed and arrive at a consensus about what should be done about it is uncanny, and a little too quick to seem true.
The second false note that Greengrass introduces is the idea that the passengers were actually trying to take back the controls of the plane and have a pilot among them fly them to safety. Again, this seems unlikely – you would have to be really credulous to believe that you could wrest the controls of a plane from four armed terrorists bent on self-destruction without them finding some way of taking you out with them. And to assume that the passengers of United 93 had any real hope of this seems to me to be detracting needlessly from their actions. The least we can do is do them the honour of believing that they knew they had no hope of survival, that they were going to die, and the only thing they could really achieve by attacking the cockpit was to ensure that they didn't end up taking many, many other people with them.
There are many other things I could quibble with in the movie. Greengrass, it seems to me, goes out of his way to build parallels between the terrorists and the passengers, showing the more human side of the hijackers, but it should be obvious to everyone that this is a false analogy. The hijackers are there because they chose to be, the passengers are not.Greengrass also spends considerable time detailing the inadequate response by the higher powers (the President, for instance, is conspicuously missing throughout the movie) and this again seems besides the point – not to mention a little unfair. There are a lot of reasons to criticise Bush & co., but their failure to respond in a timely and adequate manner to a crisis quite unprecedented in scale and unimaginable in horror is surely the least of them.
As I said, I could quibble with much in this film, but it wouldn't change the fact that I can't begin to imagine a movie that could do a better job of telling the story that it tells. United 93 is one of the most stunninglyimpactful and unbelievably authentic films I have ever watched – a movie that for its sympathy, for its humanity and for its honesty seems almost unsurpassable , and that should be roundly celebrated if only for its rigorous commitment to not turning the very real horrors of 9/11 into melodrama. Whether this movie should have been made at all is a question of personal preference. That it could have been made better if it was going to be made at all is hard to argue.