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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Film Review | United 93 (2006)

United They Fell

by Thomas Delapa

On the day of infamy that was Sept. 11, 2001, America wasn't any more prepared for a sneak attack than it was on Dec. 7, 1941. If you need reminding of this and other appalling 9/11 facts, fasten your seat belts and spend 95 harrowing minutes aboard United 93. Director Paul Greengrass' exacting reenactment lands in theaters as one of the must-see films of the year.

On the fateful morning that changed America, no one onboard United's Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco could have known that their final destination would be a field in the middle of Pennsylvania. Of the four jets hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists that day, 93 was the only one that didn't find its target. The crew and passengers' "Let's roll" heroism is now the stuff of heart-wrenching legend. Greengrass and company tell their story with soaring moral authority.

Yet United 93 expands its flight plan with a provocative review of 9/11 as experienced by those who helplessly watched the events unroll first-hand. Greengrass tracks the paths of the other three airliners through the eyes and ears of the air-traffic monitors, both military and civilian, along the Eastern seaboard.

This is a film every American should see, if only to be reminded of how easy it was for a handful of hijackers armed with razor blades to mount a devastating and demoralizing attack on the most powerful nation on Earth. In but a few shockingly unreal minutes, the terrorists destroyed the most visible symbol of American financial might, and came close to destroying this country's military headquarters.

Greengrass' "real-time" re-creation begins with the four neatly dressed terrorists preparing to board the Boeing 757 at the Newark airport. At the gate, oblivious passengers chat on their cell phones. In a cruel twist of fate, one man barely makes it on the plane before it departs.

A British director, Greengrass (Bloody Sunday) approaches his subject with exceptional diligence and respect. There are no Hollywood stars here, only non-professional actors who were cast for their similarities—in appearance and background—to their models. Former United pilot JJ Johnson plays 93 Capt. Jason Dahl. In an eerie bow to verisimilitude, the role of FAA operations manager Ben Sliney is played by Sliney himself, whose first day on the job began the morning of Sept. 11.

From the thousands of audio recordings that day, Greengrass and his crew reconstruct the chaos, confusion, shock and terror that shook the U.S. to its roots. Necessarily, we are also made to watch again the unthinkable inferno of the World Trade Center towers, images that will forever burn in the minds of Americans.

For all its agonizing familiarity, United 93 also dramatizes the little-known events that were of crucial importance in the terrorists' success once the planes were airborne. Forty years ago, Stanley Kubrick gave as doomsday scenario of Dr. Strangelove, which ridiculed our arrogant reliance on military technology. For all the billions of dollars in high-tech equipment at the disposal of the government, effective communication was muted by bureaucracy and complacency. Minutes before the hijackers stormed the 93 cockpit, a sign warning "Beware of cockpit intrusion" was flashed to the pilot and co-pilot.

This lack of preparedness was duly followed all down the line, from the civilian to military oversights. Well after the U.S. military was made aware of the hijackings, it was only able to muster two fighter jets in the air to intercept the planes. Meanwhile, since the president and the vice president were both incommunicado, it was impossible for anyone to give the command to shoot down the hijacked planes.

As the surreal doom settles in, Greengrass puts his attention on the last horrifying minutes of Flight 93. For those who believe United 93 should have never flown as a movie, please feel free to locate the exit doors and go stick your head in the sand.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly 5/04/06

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