Four years ago, British writer/director Paul Greengrass, (The Bourne Supremacy) gave audiences Bloody Sunday, his brilliant exploration of the 1972 massacre of peaceful Northern Irish demonstrators by units of the British military during a civil rights march. His recreation of that event, though fictionalized, had the look and feel of a documentary, which only served to heighten the film’s impact. He’s returned to historical material here, offering a harrowing examination of the 4th plane involved in the 9/11 attacks, the only one not to reach its intended target. United assembles fractured pieces of that incident in an intricate collage of detail, creating a picture of confusion, incredulity and fear as it moves relentlessly towards the climatic decision of the hijacked passengers and their tragic deaths. The film is emotionally stirring, respectful of the participants and free of the gung-ho patriotism that so often pervades Hollywood’s recreation of actual events. Unfortunately, it’s also curiously unsatisfying and likely to further inflame those who see the horrific events of that day as more than sufficient justification for America’s extended response to it in far off places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanemo Bay. Beyond our shores, how will non-American audiences react to this film, especially in those countries which have also suffered the painful effects of terrorism?
Working once again from his own script, Greengrass begins United with the hijackers in prayer, follows them to Newark’s airport and then carefully inter-cuts their rather casual security screening and boarding with an extended examination of the elaborate details surrounding the departure of a typical U.S. commercial airline fight. Because we already know the outcome, this nearly obsessive attention to airline trivia nourishes an intense paranoia; no matter how carefully we focus on protecting ourselves in the public aspects of our society we’re ultimately vulnerable. In contemporary America, Greengrass implies, safety is just an illusion and we’re all potential victims of the next act of incomprehensible brutality.
The storyline then shifts to the civilian and military personnel responsible for air traffic safety, detailing the mounting confusion, anxiety and chaos that occur as not one but four planes inexplicably wander off course and below radar detection, only to reappear minutes later at the World Trade Center and Pentagon with such devastating results. But those attacks involved three planes; where was the fourth and what was its target?
Working from snippets of the hurried cell-phone calls between passengers, flight attendants and those on the ground, Greengrass reconstructs the final minutes of flight #93, contrasting their resolute efforts with the sloppy tactics and mounting fears of the young terrorists who’ve taken over the plane. But individuals don’t emerge from the script; everyone’s opaque, passengers and hijackers alike. The destruction which follows, in that lonely field in southeastern Pennsylvania, produces no sense of noble loss nor gratitude for the even greater destruction which was undoubtedly avoided. To his credit, Greengrass doesn’t present the passengers as one-sided heroes, unselfishly giving their lives for the nation’s benefit; the script suggests that many were simply terrified and others motivated by a belief they could retake the cockpit and turn the controls over to a passenger who happened to be a pilot of private aircraft. Yet in depicting an actual event as awful as this, it’s precisely the motivations involved that matter, both those of innocent victims and their hijackers as well.
If we don’t struggle to understand why 9/11 happened, closure of any kind will be hard to come by; perhaps that’s why so many have offered the opinion that this film has come to us too soon, that we need more time to assess the terrible events of that day from the vantage point of a safer distance from them. Whether that’s a valid analysis or not is rendered moot by this movie’s release, but one things is certain; no one seeing it now will leave the theater with any sense of clarity or closure. What it may well do however, is provide fresh fuel for those who believe that the barbarity of 9/11 justifies everything we’ve done in its aftermath. It that’s the result, here’s a movie devoutly to be deplored.
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