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2006-05-01 22:26:09 (link)
United 93 - Review

Someone had to make the first 9/11 movie. Many filmmakers have grazed the issue up until now, from the suicide bomber tales of Paradise Now and Syriana, to the indirect references in Steven Spielbergís last two films, War of the Worlds and Munich. But now the gates have been opened with United 93, in which writer-director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) seeks to reenact the events within and surrounding the only hijacked plane that failed to reach its target.

In a stunning display of frankness and sincerity, Greengrass has vividly breathed life into an event that we could previously only comprehend from a great distance. Itís not only the best and most important movie of the year so far, but the most difficult viewing experience of any good movie in recent memory.

The movie intertwines multiple perspectives on the events of the day, first following the every day routines of the airport and the preparation and engagement of the terrorists. It then moves into the building tension, observation, and panic in air traffic control rooms and military bases along the Eastern seaboard. The story culminates in the reactions of Flight 93 passengers, some of whom mustered the courage to storm the hijackers and thwart the attack.

Some might see it as a silver-lining approach to history to focus on the one event where we have such clear individual, triumphant heroes. But the movie does not spare us the pain of discovery and shattered comfort that marked the day. The attack on the World Trade Center is shown through news footage, and Greengrass effectively places us back in the mindset of shock and the certainty that more attacks were imminent. While a traumatic viewing experience, the movie is not exploitative. Itís the most tasteful approach that could have been taken, no matter how relentlessly chilling it is.

What makes it so effective is how direct it is, while at the same time deeply personal. Greengrass does everything possible to eliminate the distance between the dayís events and the audience. The cast is entirely devoid of stars, and uniformly offers strong and appropriately minimalist performances. The writing almost completely avoids commentary and analysis, music is used minimally, and the camera work lends tremendous intimacy to the storytelling. Greengrassí use of handheld cameras in The Bourne Supremacy was merely kinetic. In United 93, itís emotive and atmospheric in much deeper ways. He also helps embed the audience by capturing just how many of the people closest to the events at hand were, in effect, audiences themselves. We are placed in the movie to watch helplessly along so many key people who were forced to do the same.

No movie should be taken as a historical document. With that said, it is historically important that the first cinematic take on 9/11 wasnít Pearl Harbor, or what many of us are afraid Oliver Stoneís forthcoming WTC project will be. Thereís a limit to how close a reenactment like this can be, and many people arenít ready to re-encounter some of the feelings the movie will unquestionably evoke. The movie is much more personal in how it exists off-screen than on.

But as a movie, itís worth consuming, and as a piece of our cultural memory and recovery, itís worth interacting with. United 93 is an attempt to understand what happened around and on one of the flights of September 11th in the most basic possible sense. Taken on those terms, itís a triumphant piece of work, and the most impressive accomplishment any filmmaker will achieve this year.

by Amos Posner


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