No 186 – United 93
Director – Paul Greengrass
I don’t do very well with picking films to watch over breakfast. If I’ve seen the film before I’m usually on safe ground. I’ll crack out Hook or Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Back to the Future and enjoy some good clean nostalgic fun.
However, when left with films I’ve not seen before I struggle.
This is not as bad as Irreversible – the film I sat down to expecting a twisty turny thriller but which culminated in me having to flick between the 15 minute unflinching Monica Belluci rape scene and CD:UK (just to keep my cereal down) – but it is still a harrowing accompaniment to toast.
But then, considering the subject matter…. 9/11…. Why am I surprised?
The film follows a sort of documentary style. Looking at the passengers of the doomed United 93 flight and also looking a the air traffic controllers who had to watch helpless as the events unfurled.
The film also splices in footage of the attack on the twin towers, which remains as vital and as harrowing as it was almost 9 years ago.
The story falls into two sections, the events that are happening on the plane and the events that are happening within Air Traffic Control. I want to discuss these sections separately, beginning with Air Traffic Control.
What surprises me is the blasé reaction they have to the initial kidnapping report. Most assume that it is a drill, and even those that know it isn’t can’t see the threat. They assume that they’re going to a different airport. After all this is before the 11th September. People just didn’t fly planes into buildings.
Of course, it goes without saying that after the first plane crashes into the World Trade Centre, the Air Traffic Controllers and the military stop merely following the progress, they become a lot more involved.
However, there is nothing they can do. You can have the most seasoned and most experienced negotiaters in the world, but if you’re talking at a kamikaze pilot who refuses to communicate, then you’re negotiating skills mean diddly. That is what was most chilling about the attacks… the fact that you can’t do anything to prevent them. You can only watch.
The second, and most important, part of the film occurs on the Plane itself. The set up of events on the plane never feel crude or convoluted. We’re introduced to passengers by eaves dropping in on their conversations. We get to know about the flight attendants. We occasionally pick up names, but that isn’t so important. We’re just watching the day to day lives of normal people. The holiday goers and nervous fliers in standard class. The business men and four very worried looking Arabs in first class.
I heard an on set story that the actors who played the terrorists remained separate from the rest of the cast. The idea behind this was to keep them an unknown entity. So that while the rest of the passengers bonded between shoots, the terrorists were still strange and aloof and unpredictable.
The build up, and the stress and the nervous glances between the four of them are wonderful. The fear is evident on their faces. Despite everything they believe, they’re still about to kill themselves.
Once they take over the plane, shit goes down. The film becomes more frantic, more messy, more violent. Going back to Irreversible, we still get someone having their face smashed in with a fire extinguisher.
This is a true story about how terrorists took over a plane and about how the passengers fought back. Neither the hijack nor the retaliation are pretty. This is anarchic, panicky destruction. But the film handles it with an impressive neutrality.
It is easy to paint the terrorists as obvious villains but here we have an unjudging view of them. Their actions damn them rather than the film’s tone. It reminds me of Downfall, with the fair portrayal of Hitler. We know that suicide bombers aren’t the goodies but it is fascinating to see their motivation and see their deliberation.
Greengrass even throws in some nifty little tricks showcasing similarities between the passengers and their hijackers. As the camera pans down the plane we pass the passengers praying, saying the Our Father out loud. As we move closer to the cockpit, those prayers change into prayers to Allah.
It is an impressive look at what people can achieve in a life or death situation. But it is bleak. It aint easy listening.
It aint the Rubber Dinghy Rapids.