The terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001 are tough to make a movie about. That’s not to say that several films covering them haven’t been made anyway, but let’s be real here: how exactly do you take such a shocking attack on American soil and make a dramatized motion picture out of it without just feeling exploitative? The answer: be Paul Greengrass (director of Bloody Sunday and, later, most of the Bourne films), and make United 93, a dark, sobering look at the tragedy that disturbed me quite a bit, but never achieved that effect by being preachy, sentimental, or even remotely manipulative. Thank goodness.
If there is one problem I have with United (and it is only one, mind you), it is the somewhat loose approach it takes to recreating the day’s horrifying events. From the title, I was expecting the film to solely be about the hijacked plane that missed its target and crashed into a field, but surprisingly enough, it doesn’t really get there until nearly an hour in.
Before that, it mainly focuses on a group of technicians in a single control room, who probably first think they’re dealing with a routine hijacking, then respond with increasing horror once the truth finally becomes clear. These scenes are very hard-hitting and well-executed, but don’t have a strong enough connection to the chunk of United that takes place on the titular flight, so the film can’t help feeling a tad awkward when shifting between these two different locations.
That little tidbit aside, United 93 is still a very powerful film. Instead of tastelessly layering Hollywood cheese or fakery onto the proceedings, it simply stands back and allows us to view them as they rapidly unfold, and the effect is just as devastating as helplessly watching a slow-motion car crash from afar. Even when the flight’s passengers finally do rebel against their captors, the flash of catharsis this brings is still marked by overwhelming sadness at the grim fate they, as well as everybody else in or near those four unlucky planes, ultimately meet.
United’s haunting documentary realism extends all the way to the filmmaking, which resembles an early Safdie Brothers film (particularly their 2012 short The Black Balloon) far more than something released by a major studio like Universal. The film’s shaky, claustrophobic handheld style, instead of feeling gimmicky or flashy, ground everything in a way a glossy Hollywood production never could, as do the strong performances, surprisingly low budget (only $15 million), and hauntingly minimalist score.
I’m not saying a glossy Hollywood production about 9/11 would inherently be bad. In fact, in the very same year United was released, the Nicolas Cage-starring World Trade Center, despite probably being coated with the cloying schmaltz I absolutely can’t stand, got fairly positive reviews, so it admittedly could be effective in its own way. At the end of the day, though, it’s still the raw, basic approach United 93 takes that will stick with me the most, and no amount of feel-good sappiness will do anything to change that.