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 United 93
 Critic's Rating
 Date Posted
   29th June, 2006
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Cast: Christian Clemenson, Trish Gates, Polly Adams
Director: Paul Greengrass

Mohammed Atta: "We have some planes…"


A black day in contemporary American history: approximately 3,000 innocent people died on an autumn Tuesday when nineteen Arab terrorists took control over four commercial passenger aircrafts. Three of these planes reached their intended targets: two struck the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center while the other was slammed into the Pentagon. The fourth aircraft, United Airlines 93, did not reach the terrorists' destination – as the passengers attempted to regain control of the plane from their captors – it plunged into a field in rural Pennsylvania killing everyone on aboard. "United 93" is their story.

Ziad Jarrah: "Ladies and gentlemen, here [is] the captain, please sit down, keep remaining sitting. We have a bomb on board. So sit."

Relying on the 9/11 Commission Report and interviews with the family members of the deceased passengers of United Airlines 93, the film is a meticulously crafted and thoroughly researched dramatisation. Four terrorists armed with knives and a homemade bomb hijacked a plane full of strangers who decided fight back based on a rational need to survive. In their deaths they have become national heroes, a testament to the unconquerable human spirit.

There is no doubt "United 93" is a work of incredible power. The film is forthright and it is respectful of the memory of thousands of innocent lives lost on a single day. It is also fearless in reprimanding the unpreparedness of American institutions in the face of an ambush, and subtlety critical of President GW Bush who could not be reached in the chaos of the day (Michael Moore has already told us where Bush was, and what took him so long, in "Fahrenheit 9/11"). However, it is important to note that the film's potency lies inherently in an idea, the great tragedy we know as 9/11. Film criticism is not about finding the line that separates a pure emotional response from the thoughtful, intellectual dissertation of a film's themes and story. But I find myself increasingly suspicious of "United 93's" (cinematic) achievement in a climate of intense peer pressure – this film has been universally acclaimed for its psychological complexity, sheer veracity and technical brilliance. So indulge me as I build my case on the backbone of two issues: (1) The mere subject of "United 93" by proxy presents unprecedented storytelling value, and (2) Given this value, has the film been able to offer a genuine reason for life beyond sober journalism? (We must remember that although the pen is mightier than the sword, in a debate of the arts, cinema is the supreme victor because it sustains unparalleled ingenuity – story, verbiage, image, sound and editing are all at the artist's disposal). "United 93" is written and directed by Paul Greengrass who is no stranger to making polemic works. Greengrass became an important political provocateur when the British Government tried to ban his notorious book Spycatcher which revealed litigious information on MI5; Greengrass uses cinéma vérité (a visual style that favours naturalistic cinematography techniques) to drive the engine of his films' aesthetics ("Bloody Sunday" was also shot handheld and depicted the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre of Northern Irish civil rights activists by British soldiers). What I have come to realise, after considerable thought and reflection, is that writer-director Greengrass' approach on "United 93" is less remarkable than what many of my fellow critics may have us believe. Greengrass has decided to ignore narrative structure as the foundation of his storytelling; in his sincere if misplaced attempt to 'shock and awe' he favoured transience to discursiveness; in fact, Greengrass has designed "United 93," primarily, as an assault of our nervous system using his trademark handheld camera shots to create prickly tension and gloom. The last twenty minutes of "United 93" are particularly disturbing because they depict the plane with the men and women – praying, screaming, raging – all falling to their deaths. I will go further and call it a thinly-veiled horror film. Anyone who understands the sanctity of human life will have an unfeigned emotional response to this sequence. Greengrass seems to have counted on this simple expectation. From a clutter of facts and research, "United 93" can pride itself for being a faithful recreation or dramatisation of an important event in history. But as a film – with a loose narrative outline and nonexistent character development – unlike the Steven Spielberg's multilayered "Munich," "United 93" has very little to really call its own.

In the aftermath of 9/11, America and the world has changed politically, economically, socially and culturally. Five years on, the repercussions of September 11, 2001 continue to shape our reality. Yes, we must never allow ourselves to forget the past; but let us not dwell upon its horrors, let us look to the future with diplomacy and understanding as facilitators of peace. "United 93" has no room for such thought. - Adnan Khan

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