United 93 (2006)

5 stars

Arguably the most riveting, suspenseful and emotional thriller of the 2000s decade, one that you already know the ending to.

Dir. Paul Greengrass
2006 | USA/UK | Drama/History/Thriller | 111 mins | 2.39:1 | English & Arabic
M18 (passed clean) for language, and some intense sequences of terror and violence.

Cast: J.J. Johnson, David Alan Basche, Liza Colón-Zayas
Plot: A real-time account of the events on United Flight 93, one of the planes hijacked on Sept 11 that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania when passengers foiled the terrorist plot.
Awards: Won 2 BAFTAs – Best Director & Best Film Editing; Nom. for 4 BAFTAs – Best British Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound. Nom. for 2 Oscars – Best Director, Best Film Editing.
Distributor: United International Pictures

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Mature/Heavy
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Tight
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream


Review #883

(Reviewed on DVD – first published 21 Apr 2013)

Spoilers: No

This is quite possibly the most riveting motion picture of the 2000s decade, and it is based on a real account – the true story of the ill-fated Flight 93 that crashed into an open field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.

It is a harrowing film that is difficult to watch, yet Paul Greengrass’ sensitive direction urges the viewer to embrace with unsequestered hearts the profound sense of tragic loss and the tremendous courage of the passengers who dared to fight back and foil the terrorists’ plot to crash the plane into the Capitol.

Employing a cast of amateur actors, some of them playing themselves as personnel working in the aviation control towers, Greengrass recreates in stunning detail much of what transpired inside these towers with an almost real-time look at the situation that unfolded that fateful day, starting with the first hijack of the morning.

“Hi, Mom, it’s me. I’m on the plane that’s been hijacked. I’m just calling to tell you that I love you, and goodbye. This really kind woman handed me the phone and she said to call you.”

Although viewers have the benefit of hindsight, United 93 presents itself in such a way that one does not quite know what exactly will happen next – we are as equally clueless as those guys trying to make sense of the situation.

On a parallel story, we see passengers boarding Flight 93, including the terrorists. The tension increases dramatically once the airplane is in the sky. Greengrass documents the struggles and fears of the passengers (and also that of the terrorists) with startling realism.

There is a strong docudrama feel, much of it evoked by the director’s mastery of the shaky-cam technique using handheld cameras. I have said it before, and will say it again: I think that Greengrass is one of the most distinctive and effective of filmmakers in the world who has been employing this visual style to great effect.

“Hey, this is a suicide mission. We have to do something. They are not gonna land this plane.”

Nominated for Oscars for Best Director and Best Film Editing, United 93 is the most accomplished American film of 2006, I daresay even more powerful than Scorsese’s The Departed, which won the Oscar for Best Picture.

The film brilliantly transits from uncertainty in the first half to a highly emotional certainty in the second, one that you already know the ending to. Yet the power of the film gives us that slightest glimpse of hope in the final seconds that just maybe… just maybe the passengers might be able to pull the plane up.

United 93 may be a heart-wrenching and painful film to sit through, but it is necessary viewing for everyone, if not to witness Greengrass’ finest moment as a filmmaker, then to experience arguably the most glowing of cinematic tributes to the lives lost on America’s blackest day.

Grade: A+





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