DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: UNITED 93

Thursday 1 March 2007


United 93 (2006) dir. Paul Greengrass
Starring: J.J. Johnson, Cheyenne Jackson, Ben Sliney


In time “United 93” will be considered a landmark of filmmaking. Never before has a film so punishingly put the viewer into a film and removed all walls between cinema and audience. It feels like a documentary, like you’re actually there watching the action as it unfolds. Director Paul Greengress recounts the events of September 11 from the point of view of the air traffic controllers, military air space commanders and the passengers of the doomed Flight 93 itself. Painstakingly written for accuracy from the information known from passenger cell phone calls, black box information, air traffic flight logs etc, we are quickly brought back 5 years to that eventful morning.(NOTE: Please don't confuse this with the bad A&E Made-For-TV Movie, "Flight 93")

First we eavesdrop on the terrorists in their hotel the morning of the attack. The camera hovers away from the men as they pray. It’s as if someone else is in the room, filming unseen. The characters are not sensationalized, there’s no evil-doer plotting. It’s matter of fact, which is even more terrifying.

We see the working class air traffic workers and flight crew going about their business as usual. The dialogue is natural, perfunctory, no melodrama, no obvious foreshadowing. But since we know what is going to happen, the tension is thick. Subtle music instrumentation simmers underneath the film complementing the mood of the scenes without over powering them.

The first half of the film concentrates on the confusion between the military and the air traffic controllers. How many planes are been taken, which ones have hit Trade Center, which ones are left? So many questions, and no one seems to have the answers. The military has requested air support, but has been redirected in the wrong direction. It’s chaos.

Ben Sliney, who plays himself, the chief who’s at the centre of the information and the decision making, has the largest role and most likely the most speaking lines. And there’s over a dozen more roles played themselves. His performance is a triumph, a non-actor, with such a demanding role – perhaps only Haing Ngor’s Oscar-winning performance as himself in the Killing Fields is better.

When, in the second half, the story moves to the events on board Flight 93, we enter into a different realm of intensive filmmaking. It’s a harrowing experience and reverential to the heroic participants, without sensationalizing them.

The experience is exhausting and will not be for all tastes. Some say it’s too early to tell story, but it’s better to know “they got it right”, and its on record for whenever they’re ready to see the film. Enjoy.

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