Reviewer: David Swindle
As anyone who has unexpectedly lost a loved one knows, it usually takes plenty of time, energy, patience, and support to recover from tragedy. And the temptation is always there, whispering seductively: walk away, ignore it, you do not need to deal with it, you’ll be fine.
That’s the scenario with September 11, 2001. It’s so much easier to look away, to choose ignorance over understanding. But we cannot do that. Our country’s wounds need attention.
The new film "United 93" provides a powerful opportunity to experience the reality of that day firsthand.
The film takes place in real time, depicting several air traffic and military control stations around the country and focusing on the events onboard United 93, the plane whose passengers fought back against the hijackers, preventing the plane from hitting the Capitol building.
The film has a fly on the wall approach, dropping the viewer right into the middle of the chaos. Writer/director Paul Greengrass ("Bloody Sunday," "The Bourne Supremacy,") developed his style as a documentary filmmaker. His visual approach is a rough, loose, documentary style that fits perfectly with the goals and unorthodox storytelling of the film.
"United 93" eschews such narrative standards as the three act structure, the protagonist-antagonist conflict, and strong character development. In a way, the film really is not a story, it’s an experience. It’s so focused on realism that it is not going to apply the artificial conventions we have come to expect for fiction. The film is basically what we would see had there been camera crews filming the events on United 93 and in the airplane and military control stations.
In most situations, this kind of filmmaking probably would be ineffective or, at the very least, difficult to pull off. It works because of the pain of 9/11. If 9/11 had never happened I’m not sure how well the film would work.
Another film comes to mind that ignores the rules of fiction in favor of a higher goal: "The Passion of the Christ." Again, there is not a rigid three-act structure, there is not a protagonist-antagonist conflict, and the very idea of character development is chucked out the window. These are sacrificed for realism, or, more accurately, theological realism. The film is effective and deeply moving for those who embrace the factuality of the story and identify their savior on screen. For others its emotionally impact is heavily reduced.
With 9/11, though, we’re all believers. And it is absolutely devastating. It really is an opportunity to relieve that horrible morning, to again experience the chaos, confusion, and horror. It’s all there right from the beginning - an anxious terror as we just sit and wait with knowledge beyond everyone in the film.
Further adding to the realistic, documentary-style of the film are the actors and their method. You will not spot a single recognizable actor in this film. And the chaos and confusion is partly real - many of the sequences aboard United 93 were improvised. The hijackers’ performances and depictions are so compelling. If only we could know what was going through their minds; but that’s another film.
"United 93" is an intensely draining, emotionally-exhausting cinematic experience. Be sure and bring one of those small packages of Kleenex. While depression dominates the film, another emotion leaps to life at the end: triumph. After a film’s worth of failure and paralysis as three planes hit their targets, we have a bold, exhilarating American rebellion.
Film is the most intense of the arts, capable of delivering more powerful experiences than music, literature, or the visual arts. Thus it is one of the most effective ways in which to address both our personal and cultural wounds. We’ve seen the power of films that depict the Holocaust, World War II, and the Vietnam War. "United 93" is the first of what are sure to be many films that can act as meaningful tools to help us deal with a wound as painful as 9/11. They should be embraced as the medicine we need.