Monday, 20 November 2006

United 93 (2006)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 2nd October 2006.

P.S.We've had a spate of 9/11 documentaries on TV lately, and with World Trade Center hitting cinema's this week, there will probably be more to follow too. But it's hard to imagine anything equalling the powerful, harrowing United 93, released on DVD this week.

I approached this with some cynicism. We all know how the story ends, and most of what is believed to have happened before that end has been documented thousands of times in our national press. So just how intense or surprising a film could this be? A lot more than I expected, that's for sure. Told almost entirely in real time, the strength of the film is the way the documentary style pulls you into the 'story' from the get-go. Most of us have been in busy airports and can identify immediately with the activities that the passengers of that ill-fated United 93 flight had to go through, before the event that changed the world, and the lives of those passengers and their family and friends forever.

What's clever about the film is the way the director doesn't rely on cheap sentiment or emotions, letting the events that unfold speak for themselves, and based largely on the results of the 9/11 commission report of the events of that day. For example, a weaker director would have focused on the recipients of those last 'I love you' phone calls that the passengers made when they realised they were on a doomed flight. But there are no such sentimental shots here, with everything being kept to the claustrophobic confines of the ill-fated aeroplane to make the viewer feel as trapped as the doomed passengers. Shot in documentary style, with hand-held cameras, often held at waist level to give the viewpoint one typically has as a passenger strapped into a plane seat, the viewer is really made to feel like one of the other passengers.

There are no long back stories here, in fact there are no back stories at all. We barely know any of the people we meet on the plane through the duration of the film. The random snatches of conversation we would hear on any sort of flight are our only 'way in' to the characters we're seeing depicted. As a result most appear anonymous and remain so until the end of the film. According to convention this should alienate us, make us feel distant from the people we're watching, and leave us with nobody to really understand or root for. And yet we feel part of the action, one of those anonymous passengers ourselves - we feel we're on the plane alongside them, stunned into disbelief, as events unfold and the mad reality of that day and its events slowly become clear.

Director Paul Greengrass pitches the film perfectly, eschewing the use of any familiar faces amongst the actors, opting for a very low-key delicate music score that's used sparingly, and interspersing action on the plane with that of the various control centres around the U.S. The illusion of reality is strengthened by using many of the army and flight tower professionals who were working that day rather than trained actors. Nor does the director attempt to take sides, showing events as they unfold in an impartial 'fly on the wall' manner, rather than attempting to force any kind of moral viewpoint on the audience through the use of invented or clichéd dialogue.

United 93 is not easy viewing - indeed many will find it harrowing. But it's one of the most powerful films you'll see, deceptively simple in its execution. It's a film that shows the real tragedy (on all sides) of the current divide between the West and the more extreme Islamic movements. It's a film everybody should see!

United 93 screencap

It seems odd to be reviewing extra's, given the subject matter of the film, but one extra - the hour long United 93: The Families and The Film -deserves special mention since it serves as a powerful documentary in its own right. The stories of those passengers we've seen in the main feature, albeit briefly and without any real identification, get fleshed out as we meet the families of those who were killed - those people who in the real world were the recipients of those 'farewell' phone calls we have seen depicted earlier in the film. It's an incredibly moving documentary, albeit one that will have you fighting back the tears in a way the main feature didn't because the real damage and sense of loss of those left behind is still very real and very raw. Actors who meet the different families are greeted as if they were the dead passengers brought back to life, and break down in tears at the emotion on display and the responsibility they feel for the part they are playing. It's an extra that doesn't distract from the main feature in any way, but illuminates and puts a new perspective on it.

The only other extra is a commentary from the director. To be honest, it's a rather dull affair. The director speaks slowly and with a sense of reverence, clearly trying to maintain the right air of sincerity and without giving any offence to friends and family of those involved in the tragedy. Whilst there are some interesting observations about the approach taken when making the film, for the most part Greengrass opts for the option of 'stating the bleeding obvious' with regard to what's happening on screen to fill out what would otherwise be long silences.

United 93 is probably not a 'must have' purchase, but it is a 'must see' rental. And if this doesn't get a nod come oscar time there's no justice in the world. United 93 is a remarkable film, and it's not hard to see why the families of those killed on that fateful day on the 11th September, whilst initially sceptical, have wholeheartedly endorsed the film. Highly recommended!

United 93 screencap

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