Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 11, 2006)
Am I the only one who finds it hard to believe we’re now five years removed from the tragic events of September 11, 2001? That terrible day often seems like it was eons ago, not only half a decade. Apparently that was enough time for Hollywood to produce flicks about that day’s events, and spring 2006’s United 93 offered the first in what likely will become many movies related to 9/11.
The film follows the events of 9/11 with a particular emphasis on the titular United Flight 93. Meant to go from Newark to San Francisco, terrorists hijack the plane and intend to crash it into a prominent target. However, passengers rise up to oppose the plot. The movie depicts a version of what may have happened on board the jet as well as events on the ground related to air traffic control and the military.
When United 93 had its premiere, I read a comment from a moviegoer who griped about the timing of the flick’s release. As seen in a Washington Post article: "’Well, it took 60 years before there was that movie by Michael Bay about Pearl Harbor’, said an elderly man, who seemed rather peeved. ‘Isn't it nice that with the advance of movie technology, it now takes only just five years for a director to cash in on tragedy?’"
Not only does that viewpoint seem awfully cynical, but also it forces an odd stretch. It implies that the Bay flick was the first one to take on the events on December 7, 1941. That’s far from the truth. Many flicks addressed the subject much earlier. Heck, apparently Secret Agent of Japan was put into production December 8, 1941. The unidentified “elderly man” must’ve forgotten how quickly that flick and many others “cashed in on tragedy”.
Whatever one thinks of United 93’s timing, I can’t believe many will find the flick to be an opportunistic piece of profiteering. The film walks a fine line between cathartic heroism and documentary-style examination, though it clearly favors the latter side. That’s for good and for ill.
The ill came out in a literal sense when I watched the flick theatrically. I literally couldn't watch much of it because I started to feel motion-sick about 20 minutes into the movie and had to keep my eyes closed for at least 75% of the remaining running time. Even two hours after I left the auditorium I still felt queasy!
I'll never see another Paul Greengrass movie in the theaters. This nausea happened to me at Bourne Supremacy as well and ruined the flick for me. Hey, at least I didn't hurl - that's more than I can say for someone else at United 93. As I left the theater, the staff was cleaning up puke near the exit.
I dislike the documentary-style shakycam not just because it literally nauseated me. I think the frenetic style renders the climax a bit less effective. Those scenes lack the urgency I'd expect just because the whole movie works that way. Had Greengrass kept the style more sedate at the start and built things up as it went, the technique would be more effective. Instead, he treats the whole damned thing like the world's coming to an end. A gradual increase in tension would make more sense.
Despite my dislike of the shakycam, I thought the final 20 minutes or so were very dramatic. That was the only part of the film I felt lived up to its potential. I really hate that "documentary-style" filmmaking, though, as I think it's a cheap attempt at verisimilitude. The technique makes more sense here than in Bourne Supremacy, but I still feel it acts as a distraction much of the time.
Oddly, United 93 undercuts its feigned realism with the use of a score. This is a flick that would benefit from a lack of music. While United 93 doesn’t pour on the score, it shows up too often and packs too much of an emotional strain. This makes little sense. The rest of the movie tries hard to present events from a realistic “you are there” style, but the music portends doom and dismay from almost minute one.
United 93 has received a great deal of praise for the respectful way it examines the day’s events. Indeed, it does steadfastly refuse to glorify or demonize any of the involved individuals. Frankly, I think the movie’s a little too damned respectful, mainly due to the treatment of the hijackers. It reminds me of a main complaint I had toward Tora! Tora! Tora!: I disliked the neutral tone taken toward the Japanese. As with those aggressors, the terrorists here undertake a brutally violent and cruel event, yet the movie portrays them in a nearly sympathetic light.
Granted, it makes me pleased to see that Greengrass doesn’t depict the hijackers as stereotypical ranting madmen. Nonetheless, I think the movie shies too far away from any potential controversy. Indeed, since it offers virtually no character development for any of the passengers, we get to know the terrorists better than any of the more traditionally sympathetic participants. This leads us to almost wind up on their side. After all, we spend the most time with them, and the movie does little to make us dislike them. While I don’t think Greengrass wants us to side with the terrorists, his refusal to truly take sides nearly creates that unintended effect.
Indeed, there’s an odd sense of political detachment about United 93. Greengrass does his best Jack Webb and sticks just with the facts, though a lack of complete historical record about the events onboard the plane results in more than a little creative liberty. Back in college, I did a paper about anti-Communism during a post-World War II election in which I took a similar approach. I essentially just reported events during the campaign and didn’t do much to interpret them. The professor gave me a “B” due to the thoroughness of my efforts but felt I didn’t deserve an “A” because I failed to do anything more than just catalog facts into one neat package.
In essence, that’s what United 93 does. Very little about it sheds any light on the events involved, as instead it serves mostly to give us a one-stop visual account of the tragedy. At times, that’s good enough, as the film does act to create a nice summary.
But is that enough to create a great film? I don’t think so. Sometimes I feel United 93 gets praised more for what it’s not than what it is. The first feature to confront 9/11 carried a heavy burden, especially since so many worried that the day’s horror would be translated into little more than action flick nonsense. When United 93 emerged and avoided all of those clichés, it earned a sigh of gratitude that may have overwhelmed most objective views of the flick. Everyone felt so relieved that the movie lacked ham-fisted heroics that the film became seen as something more dynamic than it is.
Or perhaps the genuinely stunning conclusion also dominated thoughts. United 93 offers an ending just as wrenching as one might expect, and it caps off the film perfectly. The final 20 minutes truly tear at the viewer and bring out the drama of the situation.
As for the rest of the movie, I stick with that “B” grade. Most of United 93 gets an “A” for effort but only a “C” for execution. Someday I expect a great film related to 9/11 will emerge, but this isn’t it.