Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A YEAR-END DISCUSSION AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
Paul Greengrass brought his handheld guerilla style camerawork (honed to a fine point on his earlier films Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy) to the kind of project he was made for - the story of United Flight 93 and the fate of its passengers during the attacks on September 11, 2001. There had been a lot of talk preceding the film, with questions of 'Is it too soon?' being bandied about by the media ad infinitum. Much like the fervor over Oliver Stone's World Trade Center which came out later in the year (and was anticlimactically surprisingly free of a political agenda), the hoopla didn't amount to much. The ultimate answer was that it wasn't too soon if the film was handled correctly.
That it was, for Greengrass created one of the most tense, gripping, gut-churning dramas I have ever seen. Once the film began, I felt as if I were reliving that day all over again. The foreknowledge of what will eventually occur in the final act drapes a pall of dread over the proceedings, and one can ultimately never watch the establishing shots of September 11th's beautifully clear morning skies again without the taint of impending doom lurking in the background
For those of us expecting a jingoistic flag waving spectacle (which I really wasn't), we received a remarkably even-handed portrayal of the events that was painstakingly recreated from every possible eyewitness account and available shred of government intel. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the story not only tells the tale of the ill-fated aircraft passengers and crew, but that of the numerous air traffic controllers and military brass stuck watching the events unfurl from the ground. Remarkably, the real people were on hand to portray themselves on screen wherever possible. Equally remarkable was the fact that they ultimately weren't much more in the know than us ordinary civilians as the events played out.
Another relieving surprise was the script's balanced portrayal of both the hijackers and the passengers aboard Flight 93. In fact, both groups come off more similar than not, as if they're both trapped by the circumstances of their individual faiths and lifestyles. There's plenty of (almost sympathetic) tension in the scenes building up to the takeover, as the hijackers try to summon the courage to pull off the deed. The scene is mirrored later on, while besieged passengers plead to their God while preparing for their ultimate coup.There are no 'name' actors here, which is another strength of the film. Though I did immediately recognize Christian Clemenson (as Thomas E. Burnett, Jr.), it's just because I'm a huge fan of his old television show The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.. It must have been tempting for the filmmakers to flesh out the conversations on the plane, and with the addition of the ground-based scenes, Greengrass and crew are able to eschew those pitfalls and stick to the facts as much as possible. If this were a piece of fiction, it would still be a taut, suspenseful thriller worthy of year-end inclusion. Its historical pedigree, however, vaults it up in rank as a haunting testimony of horror that none of us should have to face, and the amazing courage these people were able to summon. No war had been officially declared at the time, but the passengers and crew aboard that flight should be thought of in the same light as the young men who stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944.