United 93

Movie Information

Score:

Genre: Historical Drama
Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: J.J. Johnson, Ben Sliney, Gregg Henry, David Rasche, Christian Clemenson, Khalid Abdalla
Rated: R

There are things that trouble me about Paul Greengrass’ United 93, but those things have nothing to do with whether it was “too soon” to make the film, or if it indeed should have been made at all. After seeing the film, however, I’m less sure that it wasn’t too soon for Greengrass.

Greengrass is a serious, thoughtful filmmaker, not some quick-buck exploitationist. I don’t for a moment doubt his sincerity in making this movie. But whether he made a good film is another matter.

That to one side for a moment, I’m more disturbed by the reactions to the film than anything else. I knew from the onset that the weightiness of the film’s subject matter — the scuttling of the final terrorist flight on 9/11 by the passengers — was going to be mistaken for the weightiness of the film itself. Universal Pictures was carefully marketing the film with that in mind — in part to try to defuse the objections over the film’s very existence.

A couple days before the film opened, Screenvision — the people responsible for all those pre-film commercials so loved by moviegoers everywhere — sent out a memo instructing theaters not to put commercials on before United 93; they evidently didn’t wish for the advertisers to be seen as trying to profit from the tragedy. Despite this and Universal’s original reverential attitude, it was ironic to see the studio’s choice for the film’s attached trailer (the preview that comes as part of the film): The Break-Up, with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn. The result of this juxtaposition is that the viewer goes straight from a gag about Aniston having a part of her anatomy waxed to United 93. So much for tastefulness.

More troubling, though, is the free pass the film has gotten with critics — some of whom go so far as to suggest that anyone who doesn’t love this film is unpatriotic. In a sense, they’ve drawn a line in the sand with the movie, presenting it as a “you’re either with us or against us” proposition. The fact is that it’s still a movie — an interesting, deeply felt and respectable attempt, but far from a great one.

Greengrass took an unusual approach, in that his film has no apparent agenda beyond recording the events as they are known and, when they aren’t known, as he has deduced they occurred. (The usual caveat about reality being altered for dramatic effect is employed at the very tail of the ending.) Employing an ominously droning, low-pitched soundtrack and an overused, jittery hand-held-camera style meant to suggest a documentary approach, he bathes the film in dread from the onset. That’s not unreasonable, since we know full well where the film is heading. But it feels like overkill on some levels.

The hand-held pseudo-documentary approach kicks in too soon and conjures up less his far superior film on the 1972 massacre of protestors in Northern Ireland, Bloody Sunday, than it does The Blair Witch Project. (In fact, I’ve witnessed more than one person wanting a refund for United 93 because of motion sickness.) There’s no real sense as the movie progresses of the events becoming more confusing and nightmarish, because the style gets there before anything has happened.

Similarly, his decision to portray the passengers as a body of people, more than as individuals, is strangely distancing. We never get to know any of the doomed passengers. There are shorthand bits of details that stress their basic humanity, but that’s all. This is probably intentional, since it stresses their universal nature and points up the fact that we learn as much — or as little — about them as we would if we were casual passengers on the same plane. It also prevents any single character from taking center stage, and while this is admirable as a concept, it’s also limiting. If anything, it finally results in Greengrass giving a fuller — albeit very speculative — portrait of the terrorist flying the plane (Khalid Abdalla) than it does of the passengers.

It’s interesting that at no time does Greengrass paint the passengers — as others have done — as trying to take the plane away from the terrorists in a conscious effort to thwart an attack. Rather, he presents them as a group of people who are making a bold attempt to save their own lives. This, like the sequence where he intercuts the passengers reciting the Lord’s Prayer with the terrorists reciting prayers of their own, feels like an attempt to defuse a potentially explosive film. But I’m just not sure that’s possible, given the material.

The material itself makes the film seem less like an attempt at examination, understanding or some kind of closure than it seems like picking at an unhealed wound and reopening it. In the end, it’s a film from which the viewer will likely take away whatever he or she was predisposed to take away from the beginning. Yes, it’s a brave film, and it’s well-intended. Greengrass deserves praise for that, and indeed for making the film at all. However, for me at least, it’s just not the great film it desires to be. Rated R for language, and some intense sequences of terror and violence.

– reviewed by Ken Hanke

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

13 thoughts on “United 93

  1. Gyandeep Pattnayak

    Mr Hanke,

    I dont know why you don’t have any taste for good things….i think you are good at pointing out all the bad things in a movie….even if there aren’t any……In my opinion, UNITED 93 was not just a great movie…it was a noteworthy tribute that Greengrass paid to the people who lost their lives on 9/11. Yet, you would take all the pain to write an absolutely balderdash review saying, the camera gives me motion sickness, there’s a ‘Break-Up’ trailer at the beginning.
    I wept ‘with’ this movie….I am ashamed that you had to rate this movie….If you dont know how to show some respect, better not review any movie at all….I don’t care what you said about ‘The Dark Knight’ or ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ or any movie for that matter….But, perhaps you should have the audacity to know where to draw the line between movies like scores of others and a movie like’UNITED 93′ or a ‘Schindler’s list’ for that matter…..
    I am not an American, I don’t understand politics and all that shit….but, UNITED 93 is all what I needed to relive the trauma, the horror of that fateful day. I can’t help it….I felt grief on that day, I grieved after seeing this movie because it deepened my pain a lot more….
    For one moment, stop thinking like a critic and act human…..Honor a tribute like this, respect it…I am not advising you…I am no one to do so…….I am just showing you a mirror.

  2. Ken Hanke

    …..Honor a tribute like this, respect it…I am not advising you…I am no one to do so…….I am just showing you a mirror.

    No, sir, you are not holding up a mirror. You are merely accepting that because a movie is about something important, then the movie itself is important. Had I denigrated the occurence, then, yes, you’d be right to castigate me, but I did not. I reviewed the movie, not the event, and the two are not the same thing.

  3. Ken Hanke

    there’s a ‘Break-Up’ trailer at the beginning.

    That, by the way, is referenced to call attention to the studio’s own hypocritical tastelessness. First, they request theaters not run advertisements before the film and then they turn around and ship the prints with an attached trailer advertizing the brainless romantic-comedy they’re promoting. (If you’re unaware of the procedure, an attached trailer is one that comes affixed to the print and which the studio expects the theaters to run.)

  4. Gyandeep Pattnayak

    Similarly, his decision to portray the passengers as a body of people, more than as individuals, is strangely distancing. We never get to know any of the doomed passengers…..

    This is what you have written, isn’t it? And you were a bit disappointed due to this….But, Dear Mr. Hanke, we must be aware that this movie is presented to us in Real-Time….there’s no need for any back story at all….We know as much as the passengers do….or do not….

  5. Gyandeep Pattnayak

    I reviewed the movie, not the event, and the two are not the same thing.

    I know, Mr Hanke, they are not the same thing……
    But, the names you have labeled United 93 with, are, what have tempted me to write this. You call it ‘Interesting movie’, ‘far from a great one’…and on other hand you say Greengrass has no intention of making quick bucks…. I mean, can you link those two sentences and tell me what were you actually trying to tell in the so called “REVIEW” of yours?

    I repeat again, that please don’t look at UNITED 93 as a movie….It does not ‘need’ or ‘want’ any ratings…It doesn’t cry out for attention…It just unfolds the events and we feel the fear, the apprehension and the surge of bravery that the passengers felt on that fateful day. I don’t know about anyone else, but I definitely saw a ray of hope in UNITED 93…Maybe, I can’t put it in words, but the sheer bravery of the passengers that I witnessed, something changed in me…and that’s when I realised the power of Greengrass’ United 93…..

    I never said that you were denigrating the occurences of the day, but why the movie then? Even after, we know that it is a portrayal of the actual events that took place on 9/11. As I said earlier, the event and the movie made me weep as much….Read your own words that no one in the movie tries to be a hero….but, today we know that by not trying to be heroes, they became heroes and therein lies the point.

    I have nothing personal against you but I definitely know when someone’s saying just rubbish.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I definitely know when someone’s saying just rubbish

    So do I.

  7. Gyandeep Pattnayak

    So do I…..

    Well, then thanks for looking at yourself in the mirror, at least. Thanks a ton!

  8. Mr Pattnayak,

    Not to speak on Ken’s behalf, but I feel you seem to be missing the point that Ken is not making any judgments about the events of 9/11 in this review (aside from acknowledging the importance of them), he’s simply reviewing a film about them.
    You say that UNITED 93 should not be looked upon as a movie – why not? It is a movie, and should not get a free pass from criticism merely because it is based upon real events of great import.

    QUOTE: I never said that you were denigrating the occurences of the day, but why the movie then? Even after, we know that it is a portrayal of the actual events that took place on 9/11.

    Yes, it’s a portrayal of the events. It’s not the events themselves. And I’d hardly say Mr Hanke is denigrating the film. He gave it three and a half out of a possible five stars, and praised it as well intentioned but flawed. If you want to see him denigrate a film, check out his review of WHITE CHICKS.

  9. Gyandeep Pattnayak

    Mr. Dylan, Thanks for the opinion and I agree with you. But I pointed out my dislike because this ‘movie’ was rated in terms of stars. I don’t follow it. This event has already happened. Greengrass has merely tried to stick to the facts, nothing more. And that’s why I find it a bit problematic when this movie is rated and ‘reviewed’.

  10. Gyandeep Pattnayak

    Mr. Dylan,

    Still, I hold your opinion in high regards and appreciate it. But, then , that’s all there is about POV, isn’t it? Anyway, I’ll surely check out WHITE CHICKS review. Thanks.

  11. Ken Hanke

    But I pointed out my dislike because this ‘movie’ was rated in terms of stars.

    Well, because it’s still a movie and as such the fact that it’s fact-based doesn’t mean it can’t be judged as a movie.

    Greengrass has merely tried to stick to the facts, nothing more

    That’s a little ingenuous. Greengrass has stuck to the facts where he has the facts, but there are other aspects of the film where he’s making educated guesses about what happened inside that plane and inside that cockpit.

    And that’s why I find it a bit problematic when this movie is rated and ‘reviewed’.

    But why? It’s still a movie. Is every fact-based movie about an important event exempt from being reviewed and rated. Is Schindler’s List, for example, immune from critcism? If not, why not?

  12. Gyandeep Pattnayak

    Mr. Hanke,

    Sure, it makes sense when we compare ‘Schindler’s List’ as a movie but….how do I put it? Schindler’s List was a drama, if I am allowed to call it that. But, United 93 was a realistic version of the events that occurred. Also, the event left me grief and terror-stricken, as it did to so many others.

    I agree what you say. But, you yourself said to me that you ‘loathe the star rating qualms’….and also that ‘it is nothing but a quick reference guide for the viewer’. And in the above comment you’ve contradicted your views by giving reason for why you rated it. hope I am not being rude. Sorry beforehand sir. Please don’t take me to be rude. Please just clarify my doubt.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Sure, it makes sense when we compare ‘Schindler’s List’ as a movie but….how do I put it? Schindler’s List was a drama, if I am allowed to call it that. But, United 93 was a realistic version of the events that occurred.

    Yes, Schindler’s List was a drama, but really so is United 93. It is a dramatization of the events. It is written and lit and directed and acted and photographed. It didn’t just happen in front of the camera. It isn’t a documentary. It’s a carefully constructed dramatic representation designed to make the strongest impact possible on the viewer. That its style seems realistic to you is part of that design.

    Also, the event left me grief and terror-stricken, as it did to so many others.

    Which still has nothing to do with the quality of the film. But does the event resonate with you that way because you lived through it — even if at a distance? In what other way could the event be more horrific than the systematic murder of some six million people? But isn’t that what you’re saying in a sense? You have two films — both dramatizations (United 93 admits as much in its credits) — of horrific events. If one of them should get a free pass saying it is immune to criticism because of its subject matter, then the other should, too — as should any film depicting similarly weighty material. Right? (For the record, I do not think Schindler’s List is anything like flawless or immune to critcism, which is partly why I chose it as an example.)

    But, you yourself said to me that you ‘loathe the star rating qualms’….and also that ‘it is nothing but a quick reference guide for the viewer’. And in the above comment you’ve contradicted your views by giving reason for why you rated it.

    I rated it because those are the rules I have to play by, not because I like the star rating system. As long as I have to give a rating to films, I’m going to give a rating to all of them. It doesn’t mean I like the rating system.

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