There was a lot of debate over whether or not audiences were
prepared to see a movie about the traumatic events that shook
America on September 11, 2001. Some have argued that it is "too
soon" for Hollywood to tackle such topics. But if one looks at the
history of the cinema, there are numerous examples of motion
pictures dealing with events that shook the nation. During the heyday
of the studio system, Hollywood made films about battles during
World War II within months of the actual events (e.g.,
WAKE
ISLAND
). Once the studio system collapsed in the 1960s, though,
it sometimes took years for motion pictures to address recent
history. The conflict in Vietnam, which traumatized the United States
for much of the 1960s into the mid-70s, began to be the subject of
serious drama within two to three years of its conclusion. In recent
years, though, the focus has been on entertainment instead of
history, with feature films ceding much of the territory to television.             
Indeed, the small screen has already dramatized the events that
occurred on the airplane that crashed in a wooded area of
Pennsylvania. The A&E network debuted
FLIGHT 93 to high ratings
and relatively good reviews. So the debate over the big screen
release should be moot.

 The fact that executives at Universal Pictures and Working Title
Films hired Paul Greengrass to write and direct the film says a great
deal. Greengrass won plaudits for the 1999 television movie
THE
MURDER OF STEPHEN LAWRENCE
, which sensitively depicted the
1993 racially motivated killing of an 18-year old, as well as 2002's
BLOODY SUNDAY, a telefilm that recreated the events of January
30,1972 when British soldiers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators
in Northern Ireland. While Greengrass has gone to enjoy commercial
success with
THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, his earlier work indicated
that he might be the perfect choice to handle
UNITED 93.

 The amazing thing about Greengrass' film (and it should be
noted that he secured the cooperation of family members of those
on board the doomed airplane) is that he manages to avoid turning
the film into the usual "disaster" movie. By nature, the characters
in those films are not well defined and there's a similar lack of
character development here. Some have criticized the film for that,
but really, the movie isn't about any one of the people on the flight,
it is about how the group as a whole reacted. Greengrass takes his
time building to the terrible climax, slowly moving from shots of the
terrorists preparations to passengers waiting at Newark Airport to
control towers in Boston, Cleveland and Virginia (where the Federal
Aviation Agency is headquartered.) The filmmaker has hired a mixed
cast of veteran stage actors (like Cheyenne Jackson, Chip Zien,
Denny Dillon, David Alan Basche, Peter Hermann and David Rasche
who all portray passengers), real-life airline employees (JJ Johnson
and Trish Gates) and Ben Sliney, the FAA's operations manager who
was marking his first day in that position on September 11.

 Greengrass recreates the attacks on the World Trade Center
utilizing existing news footage and it still retains the horror of that
day. Despite knowing the ultimate outcome of this film,
UNITED 93
is a harrowing and important film. I might quibble with some of
the conclusions that Greengrass has reached regarding the flight's
final few moments, but that doesn't diminish the film's power. This
is one movie that demands to be seen as both a tribute to the men
and women who died on the flight and as an important piece of art.

            
         Rating:               A-
         MPAA rating:       R for language, and some intense
                                         sequences of terror and violence
         Running time:     111 mins.


                Viewed at Universal Screening Room
United 93
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.