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UNITED 93

Review by Gordon Justesen

Director: Paul Greengrass
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 111 Minutes
Release Date: September 5, 2006

“We have to do something. They are not going to land this plane.”

Film ****

The horrific events of 9/11 may seem like they in fact happened a mere five years ago, but to the families and loved ones who suffered unimaginable losses, it would no doubt seem as if it all took place yesterday. This year saw two bold filmmakers ready to discover if it was in fact time for us to revisit the most devastating day of horror through film. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is in theaters as we speak, and earlier this year English filmmaker Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) was the first one to rise to the occasion with United 93.

The film very much illustrates an important notion…there was no better time than now to tell this story.

For one thing, of all the unimaginable events that took place on 9/11, the story involving the heroism of the passengers of United Flight 93 didn’t receive as much coverage as other events…only because there was simply so much else going on in multiple parts of the country. But Greengrass’ film serves as an important reminder that if had not been for the passengers and the crew members of this flight, America would’ve have experienced an additional bit of unimaginable news.

Though I’ve only seen one other film of his, Paul Greengrass has quickly become one of my favorite filmmakers. His choice to shoot his work through a lot of hand-held camera work is most effective. Watching The Bourne Supremacy, the far superior film thus far in the franchise, was almost like watching Matt Damon kicking ass and crashing cars for real, thanks to Greengrass’ unique filmmaking style.

United 93 carries that same filmmaking approach, as Greengrass (who also wrote the screenplay) has the entire story play out in present tense form, putting the viewer right there with the people to witness every detail unfold. Greengrass also made a much wise decision to cast not only unknown actors in the roles of the passengers, crew members and terrorists, but the very people who were there that day to see everything unfold; from the National Air Traffic Control to nearby military command unit.

The film opens with the boarding of United Airlines Flight 93. The flight, destined for San Francisco, carried only 40 passengers. As we see them board the flight, we are simultaneously plunged into the point of view of FAA Headquarters. For FAA Manager Ben Sliney (portraying himself), it seems like just another day of overseeing flights throughout the country. Upon receiving word that there might be a hijacking on one U.S. flight, nobody knows what to think since there hasn’t been a hijacking since the early 90s.

Simultaneously, Greengrass plunges us right in the mix of the action at three air traffic control sights in Boston, Cleveland and NORAD. In addition, we are also alongside members of a military command unit. As events of the morning slowly develop, we are right there with the people in these locations, and we react just as they do the events as they occur. When it’s reported that a plane may have hit one of the WTC buildings, FAA Headquarters are scratching their heads, wanting to think it may have been something smaller than a commercial jet but at the same time fearing the worst. Then the second plane hits for everyone to see, indicating the worst possible scenario ever imagined for the FAA, air traffic and military command.

Of course, by now, it’s known that the main reason that the United 93 hijacking didn’t coincide with the incidents at the World Trade Center and The Pentagon was due to the fact that the flight got a late takeoff because of heavy runway traffic. It also takes a while for the three terrorists on board to go through with the plan. At one point, the leader of the three even shows signs of resisting to initiate anything moments before the hijacking eventually occurs.

United 93 doesn’t deliver in the way of character development, only because Greengrass’ storytelling style doesn’t allow time for it. We aren’t given any stereotypical characters like you would normally see in a contemporary film about a hijacked plane. The characters simply react to the horrifying situation the only way real human beings would. Through phone calls to loved ones, they learn of what has happened in New York and Washington. It is then that they must make a stand before further destruction is caused.

And few films are capable of pinning you to your seat with such an impact the way the final moments of United 93 will have you. You know what is going to happen, and many will probably want to look away when it does happen, but when the inevitable happens the effect it left on me was that of shaken, deeply moved, and pure mourning for the men and women who journeyed straight into death without flinching, all in the name of saving lives. And Greengrass closes the film with a pivotal camera shot that will strike you deep and pin you to the seat even harder. I can tell you that I wasn’t able to move until the credits ran through.

United 93 is unquestionably one of the most important films in years. It offers no commentary whatsoever on the events of 9/11, but simply puts the viewer in the midst of everything that happened that fateful morning as it unfolded. The film is very much a triumphant honor to those who gave their lives that day, and Paul Greengrass should be praised for applying such a bold vision to convey their heroism.

Whether you’re ready to see it or not, there’s no denying the impact of United 93. It is unquestionably one of the year’s best films, as well as the decade.

Video ****

Universal’s anamorphic presentation is most astonishing. The camera work that Greengrass applies to give you that you-are-there feeling is made even more enthralling by a super clean and clear presentation. Just about every shot carries a bright quality, particularly the scenes inside Flight 93 itself. No image flaws detected at any point. A most effective visual presentation.

Audio ****

The 5.1 mix is nothing short of astounding. There are so many jolting moments involving sound that, given the serious subject matter, it was somewhat hard to keep track of. The use of the authentic area shots, such as air traffic control and FAA Headquarters help in providing endless level of background noise to perfectly accommodate the surround sound channels. Dialogue delivery, music playback and the unquestionably intense scenes also help in making this a unique DVD audio experience.

Features ***1/2

To look at the features on this release, you wouldn’t think that it would be deserving of such a rating, but the extras on this disc are just as gripping as the film itself. Such is the case with the nearly hour long documentary, “United 93: The Families and the Film”, where we get perspectives from several cast members as well as numerous families who lost loved ones in the United 93 tragedy. One actor even makes a visit to the family of the person he is portraying in the film, and words can’t even describe the emotions that are seen. Also included is a commentary track with Paul Greengrass, which is a most informative listen, Memorial Pages with detailed biographies of each passenger and crew member, and a short film titled “Two Towers”.

Summary:

United 93 is a bold and powerful film experience. Thankfully not exposing any aspect of 9/11, writer/director Paul Greengrass applies a most unique vision of sheer authenticity to deliver a story of real heroism that this country, and most of the world, will never forget.

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