United 93

With all the rhetoric of a post-9/11 world, it’s surprising how quickly we’ve rushed to capture this moment in the old way, by taking a snapshot of it.
Like a family fresh from a disastrous vacation, we seem to feel we need to make the Twin Towers into a movie of the week before it’s forgotten. Depending on your perspective this is either the final victory of our hyper-real, reality-TV-addicted pop culture or it’s a sweet and poignant gesture.
The fact is that life wasn’t much different after 9/11, and the film based on the events of United 93 (the only plane to be brought down before it hit its intended target – the White House) reminds us that one of the drawbacks of living in a resilient culture is that we tend to forget. Swept into Afghanistan and then Iraq, the last five years is a case study in what happens when you don’t treat an infection.
Maybe this is why United 93 is so powerful. Maybe it’s like draining a festering wound. Or maybe it’s just a damn fine movie.
Director Paul Greengrass has made a film that somehow resists the polarizing politics of our post-9/11 world. United 93 is a film that succeeds as a national mythology and as a historical document, and it does so without resorting to the foam-at-the-mouth antics of the far left or far right.
Greengrass humanizes the terrorists without sympathizing with them, and he has the courage to open with a Muslim prayer. He follows the four young terrorists as they begin the day that will end in mayhem and bloodshed, and shows that they are scared, eager and nervous – human beings like the rest of us. 
We experience the chaos of the outsider perspective firsthand as they enter the airport: the noise, rush and commotion of our busy American lives. Passengers chatter incessantly on cell phones while the quiet somber terrorists mutter prayers under their breath, and the film has the feel of a documentary. 
They board the plane, sitting in different sections and communicating only in whispers. The terrorists’ fellow passengers are a great melting pot of personalities. Greengrass has treated them the same way as he has the terrorists, by letting them speak for themselves. We don’t need fancy flashbacks to know who is married, who has kids, who is leaving elderly parents behind.
We’re smart enough to read these people’s body language, clothes, and gestures, just like we do every day of our lives.
We are in the plane when one of the terrorists stands up and reveals what appears to be a bomb strapped across his chest, are frozen when another slashes a man from behind, and the experience of helplessness is palpable. Libertarians that saw 9/11 as proof of how institutionalized and cowed Americans have become simplify the story by ripping it from its social environment.
United 93 contextualizes the events of that surreal day in September. The film gives us pause to reflect not only on what could have happened if the plane hit its target, but how the events of that day created a chance for passengers on United 93 to take direct, brave action. A takeoff delay and telephone conversations between passengers and loved ones relaying the earlier events in New York provided a timely framework for passengers to disrupt this attack.
“It had to be the right time,” one of the terrorists replies when his cohort asks why he waited so long to begin the takeover. But he miscalculated his actions. The film stuns, humbles, and re-awakens its viewers to our current global climate by relating events that are now nearing five years old. And it leaves viewers hoping that they – like the passengers on United 93 - know when it is time to rise up and take the personal, direct action that is needed.
United 93 is a film communicates this American story on target, and on time.


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