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Worth A Look: 16.49%
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9 reviews, 43 user ratings

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United 93
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Grim and harrowing, though not as depressing as 'R.V.'"
4 stars

The real question surrounding “United 93,” the first major Hollywood narrative feature to grapple with the specific events of 9/11 is not whether or not it is “too soon” to depict such events for mass multiplex consumption–after all, there were films that made reference to the attack on Pearl Harbor within a few weeks of December 7, 1941. The real question is whether the film–or any film on the subject (including Oliver Stone’s upcoming “World Trade Center”)–is good enough on its own terms to earn the right to deal with the subject. Face it, what happened on 9/11 was so devastating and overwhelming that any film on the subject–unless it has been made by an utter incompetent–is going to provoke a profound emotional reaction no matter what the intrinsic artistic qualities of the film might be. Because of that, “United 93" could have been a schlocky, low-rent exploitation item and it would still probably provoke intense feelings of terror, sadness, anger and triumph in anyone watching it. Thankfully, “United 93" is more intelligent and ambitious than that and while it may be flawed and imperfect, it is a worthy attempt at grappling with the events it depicts in a way that respects the victims as well as the viewers.

Unfolding in more-or-less real time, “United 93" focuses on the one seized plane that did not reach its target (supposedly the White House) and instead punched a hole in a field in rural Pennsylvania. Although it can never be known exactly what happened on that flight, the story goes that when the passengers began calling their loved ones from the plane and learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they realized that they weren’t merely in the middle of a hijacking–they were unwilling participants in a suicide mission. Realizing that they had nothing to lose, several of the passengers rose up in attack against the terrorists and prevented them from carrying out their grisly task. Although conspiracy theorists have speculated about what really happened that day, questioning everything from the planned target to whether or not the plane was actually brought down by the military, “United 93" sticks to this basic scenario and portrays it as the unquestioned truth. (At the end, though, there is a disclaimer that admits that the film, though meticulously researched, is ultimately a speculation as to what occurred on that flight.)

The stuff on the plane is technically brilliant and the film is impressive in the way that it slowly and quietly builds the tension throughout its first hour and later depicts both the takeover and the passenger revolt in a manner that stresses realism over melodramatic theatrics and pandering to audiences demanding the red meat of revenge. As I said earlier, though, this is the material that is going to provoke an immediate reaction in practically anyone–it is virtually impossible not to get at least a little choked up at the sight of passengers calmly calling their loved ones for the last time. That’s the easy part but what really sets the film apart are the scenes on the ground as the air-traffic controllers and the military struggle to comprehend the rapidly unfolding events with a mixture of professional restraint and personal horror. The thing I remember most about 9/11 is the sheer confusion that set in that morning–no one had any idea for the longest time what was going or what might be about to happen–and the film captures that vibe perfectly. Although there are implicit criticisms regarding the lack of communication amongst the various FAA and military officials, not to mention the inability to reach President Bush, the film largely paints these people as dedicated individuals who did what they could to the best of their abilities, only to discover that these efforts simply weren’t enough.

“United 93" was written and directed by British filmmaker Paul Greengrass, whose previous film was the hit thriller “The Bourne Supremacy.” Before that, however, he made his name on the international film scene with “Bloody Sunday,” another meticulous recreation of the chaos, confusion and tension that led to an infamous act of violence that would spark years of violence–in that case, the events surrounding a 1972 Irish civil rights march that was brutally attacked by British police in a clash that left 12 people dead and helped breathe new life into the Irish Republican Army. As he did in that film, Greengrass goes to extraordinary lengths to make “United 93" as realistic as possible–the proceedings have been written and filmed in a loose, documentary-like style that gives us a fly-on-the-wall feel that makes us feel as if we are experiencing the events for the first time even though we know going in exactly what the end result will be. Even during the finale–the one point where one might have expected (and I privately feared) that the balance might tip too far towards sacrificing the verisimilitude in order to give viewers a more dramatically satisfying conclusion–Greengrass keeps things in check and even manages to come across with a final image that is as haunting, moving and strangely poetic as anyone could have hoped for.

The downside to this painstaking recreation is that when something doesn’t quite ring true, it stands out a lot more than it might have in an ordinary film. For example, Greengrass has correctly chosen to cast the film for the most part with unknown actors; in several cases, some of the actual people involved in the events on the ground–the most significant being Ben Sliney, the FAA National Operations Manager whose first day on the job was September 11–have been hired to play themselves. That said, there are still a couple of somewhat familiar faces that turn up here and there–the most notable being David Rasche (best known for playing “Sledge Hammer” on TV and the President in the current “The Sentinel”) and Gregg Henry (currently seen, or not, as the weirdo mayor in “Slither”)–and just the sight of them is enough of a jolt to remind us that this is, in the end, just another movie. I also could have lived without the score from John Powell–while it is relatively unintrusive, this is the kind of movie that calls for no music whatsoever–and a shot of one of the terrorists taping a picture of the White House to the plane’s control panel, as if they needed a reminder of what their target looked like.

These odd lapses may hurt “United 93" at times but for the most part, this is a smart and relatively powerful work that is a worthy effort to examine an enormous tragedy through the power of art. Whether or not you should see it, though, is a question that a mere review cannot possibly begin to answer–for many people, the trauma of the event is still so fresh that no film, not even one as sober-minded as this, is worth reopening such painful psychological wounds. I would say that if you feel that you can handle seeing a straightforward, though reasonably non-exploitative, look at a portion of what happened on 9/11, “United 93" is definitely worth catching. If you think it will simply be too much or that it is too soon to even think of experiencing such events in an environment that includes the sale of Sno-Caps and the trailer for “The Fast and the Furious 3,” you should probably give it a pass. As for myself, I believe wholeheartedly that it is a decent and respectful film and I am glad that I saw it. On the other hand, I have to admit that I cannot imagine any circumstance under which I would ever want to sit through it a second time.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14494&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/28/06 02:55:46
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/20/17 morris campbell a awesome but harrowing movie 5 stars
6/21/14 The king Greengrass is the master 5 stars
12/10/09 Screw all Conspirators Very good movie that captured the harrowing final moments of United 93. God Bless them all. 5 stars
6/07/07 Danielle Ophelia The most authentic, least manipulative film you'll ever see. 5 stars
4/18/07 Stevo UK Too much too soon. American citizens should Fuck this mockery of a tragic day. 1 stars
2/24/07 Danny Worth watching, but I actually thought the TV movie "Flight 93" was more gut-wrenching. 4 stars
2/06/07 Matt A tragic tale beautifully and respectfully told. May they all R.I.P. 5 stars
12/14/06 The Deadly Assassin Well crafted thriller. 5 stars
12/03/06 BrianDePalma ok movie 3 stars
9/19/06 albert awesome! 5 stars
9/09/06 Jan great film! 5 stars
9/06/06 RS Triumph of the Will 2006 Total Propaganda Hated it. 1 stars
9/05/06 action movie fan powerful documentary style thriller telling of 9/11 events--gripping and intense 5 stars
9/01/06 ES Goes against the evidence 1 stars
8/25/06 Alex Thorne mabye ten years down the line it would be decent, but this just seems exploitive. 2 stars
8/17/06 Nix thrilling 5 stars
8/17/06 Pn. Hate to sjoot YOU down, Heather, but it's time to turn off the cartoons and pay attention. 5 stars
8/05/06 Heather In real life, this plane was SHOT DOWN, get real!! 1 stars
7/25/06 Frenzy very good 5 stars
7/05/06 Jonathon Holmes one of-if not-the best film of 2006 5 stars
6/19/06 Becky The most I've ever cried in theatres. Heart-wrenching. 5 stars
6/04/06 MP Bartley Very powerful and distressing. Hard to forget. 5 stars
6/01/06 San Lamar not my kind of movie 2 stars
5/31/06 Chris Malone A Stunning unremitting statement 5 stars
5/19/06 Christine Wilbik Very moving and interesting movie 4 stars
5/13/06 Desperado What an incredible movie, I had chills all the way though it and I left stunned 5 stars
5/12/06 Eric Mc Extremely Powerful, moving, emotional and REAL 5 stars
5/09/06 Doubter pure fiction 1 stars
5/09/06 rachelle realistic with empathy for the victim's families. eveyone needs to see this movie 5 stars
5/07/06 Paul A good piece of fiction, in reality the plane was SHOT DOWN 3 stars
5/06/06 Mase Hard to watch, challenging cinema. If you let it, it will punch you in the emotional gut. 4 stars
5/06/06 Mason Tragic story + skakey hand cam + hokey dialogue = worth seein' 4 stars
5/06/06 Unimpressed if you believe this...I have ocean front property for sale in Phoenix 1 stars
5/06/06 Air Biscuit It's changed how I look at violence. Violence for entertainment feels sick now. 5 stars
5/01/06 Daniel Flawless film. And your review is spot-on. 5 stars
5/01/06 Deadite Great film. 5 stars
4/30/06 mr.mike bullseye 5 stars
4/29/06 Cheshire Gothic Succubus what can i possibly say? one of the greatest films ever made 5 stars
4/29/06 Mark very fine film 5 stars
4/29/06 Anne Great movie, loved the format. 5 stars
4/28/06 your worst goddamn nightmare Incredible film. Made me scared, angry, stressed, sad, tearful... 5 stars
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  28-Apr-2006 (R)
  DVD: 05-Sep-2006



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