There has been a plethora of programmes and films on T.V. over the last few days to mark the anniversary of 9/11. By far the best I have seen so far is United 93, a powerful film about the flight of the United Airlines plane that crashed before reaching its designated target. The film was shown on ITV and to their credit they showed the film without the interruption of adverts.
United 93 is a docudrama by British film maker Paul Greengrass and based on recordings, interviews and testimonies from many of those involved in the unfolding horror of 9/11. Several of the participants in the events play themselves in the film, giving the unfolding narrative authenticity and avoiding the melodrama of offerings like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre. The story begins with the hijackers preparing to depart for the airport and passengers going through the mundane process of checking in for an everyday internal flight. Knowing what is to come, there is genuine tension from the start in watching as late passengers check in and people make routine phone calls before take off. The flight is backed up due to heavy air traffic and there is a real possibility that it won’t take off before news comes in of the other terrorist attacks. The short glimpses of passengers reactions when the plane finally takes to the air are truly poignant because the viewer knows what is to come.
The film depicts the reactions to the unfolding horror from several perspectives; the passengers and crew of the plane, air traffic controllers and the military . What emerges is the chaos and confusion as well as the inability to comprehend what is happening and how to respond. Some of the most effective scenes are the reaction shots as controllers watch the second plane crashing into the World Trade Centre; no one can quite believe what they are watching and all are struck dumb as the fireball envelopes the top of the tower.
The later half of the film focuses on the events inside United 93 during its last few minutes in the air. There is a certain amount of speculation as to exactly what happened but much of the story is pieced together from the phone calls to loved ones made by the passengers. It gradually dawns on the captive passengers that this is not a straightforward hijacking as they hear news of the Trade Centre attacks and the explosion at the Pentagon. The decision to try and retake the plane is no gung-ho act of bravado typical of Hollywood blockbusters, but the hesitant conclusion drawn by terrified men and women who see no alternative course of action. The last few moments are harrowing as the passengers almost succeed in over powering the hijackers before the all too familiar final event.
From start to finish United 93 maintains an almost unbearable tension, remarkable for a film in which the ending is so well known. The routine of the flight, the ordinariness of the passengers, the disbelief and confusion of those responding to the unthinkable, the breakdown of communication between the authorities and uncertainty about how to react, all effect a realism seldom achieved on the big or small screen. United 93 comes as close as any film can in creating a fitting tribute to those caught up directly in the tragedy of 9/11.
I first posted this review in September 2009 and I still maintain it is the best film or documentary I have seen on the subject.
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