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