May 12, 2006
I will admit that I approached United 93 with serious skepticism. I expected this reenactment of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to present a biased account of events in order to promote a specific political agenda. Now, I believe I was wrong. United 93 is a disturbingly realistic and surprisingly fair representation of the hijacked flight that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania before reaching its intended target.
The film opens with a very human portrait of the attackers reciting prayers in their hotel room as the morning light filters through the windows. From there, the first half of the narrative tracks the painstaking process by which military and air traffic personnel learned of the hijackings, occasionally cutting to the loading and departure of United flight 93. The control room scenes are intense, and they convey a sense of communal helplessness: officials addressing the attacks were watching the same TV news coverage seen by millions of Americans in their living rooms.
The second half of the film turns its attention toward flight 93, which was the last hijacked plane discovered. Passengers, aware of the gravity of the situation, form a plan to storm the cockpit and take control of the plane. The heroism of their efforts was the object of much attention in the press, and in this film it emerges without the Hollywood sentimentality that could be expected. The characters come across as authentic people, choosing to act in spite of their legitimate fear and inadequacy.
Without a doubt, the most emotional scenes in the film are those in which passengers call their families to say goodbye. Still, these haunting moments avoid sentimentality. I was particularly touched when many of the passengers recited parts of the Lord's Prayer, spliced intermittently with the Arabic prayers of one of the hijackers in the cockpit. This technique is one of the ways in which United 93 is uniquely able to humanize the terrorists without excusing their actions.
There is much more to say about this memorable film that space will not allow. As for my recommendation, this film is not for anyone with a weak stomach. The violent scenes are extremely disturbing (though without exploiting their subjects) and the pace through the entire film makes it uncomfortable to watch. Ultimately, United 93 is a serious and brutal artistic portrait of a time still fresh in our collective memory, and I believe the film does it justice.