The History Place - Movie Review

United 93

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

When Phillip Gavin, publisher of The History Place, suggested I review United 93, I was disappointed to discover that the only local theater showing it was one my wife and I avoid like the plague. This particular AMC multiplex is a magnet for local teens, who tend to disregard even the relaxed notions of decorum we fifty-something filmgoers have learned to grin and bear.

We arrived 30 minutes before the feature's starting time. As the venue gradually filled, we found ourselves repeatedly relocating ever farther forward in a futile attempt to put some distance between us and the rowdy teens we had anticipated. As the preliminary programming slid seamlessly into the previews, the chatter around us abated only because mouths were filled with popcorn (free refills on the jumbo size, if you can imagine). Cell phones chimed in with pop tunes while teenyboppers prospected in their purses' detritus to locate and turn them off.

Then, at last, the film began--with a prayer. A terrorist sat cross-legged on a hotel bed, Koran in hand, chanting. These scenes of morning prayers flowed with the traffic and the airport crowds into the routine chores and chatter of a cross-country flight getting ready for the five-and-a-half hour flight from Newark to San Francisco. The homely chit-chat of pilot and co-pilot, the flight crew, and various passengers, which would normally be boring, was poignant in the knowledge of what would inevitably follow in the next 90 minutes.

My wife and I had advanced as close to the screen as we could stand to be, when at the last moment six teenaged girls had shuffled giggling into the row in front of us. Almost subconsciously, I began rehearsing the balanced admonition that I hoped would induce silence instead of precipitating a noisy confrontation. My fears seemed confirmed when the chatter onboard the departing aircraft was echoed by the chatter in the rows around me.

In the style to which films such as Traffic, Crash, and Syriana have accustomed us, Director Paul Greengrass uses quick cuts and hand-held cameras to create a sense of real-time verisimilitude. It's a style that not only evokes documentary and news footage; it mimics web-surfing, too. The audience, predominantly from the age group of the six kids in front of us, settled down. Then, as if an invisible Greengrass whispered, "Now that I have your undivided attention," he turned up the tension--slowly, mercilessly.

As the air traffic controllers at Newark watch planes crash and explode across the short span of water that separates their tower from the World Trade Center, they connect the dots to the airliners out of Boston which they've lost radio and radar contact with in the previous few moments. Meanwhile, on United 93, as the flight crew innocently revels in the small passenger manifest--only about 40 paying customers to serve--the hijackers agonize, argue among themselves about whether the time is right, and finally act with horrifying violence.

The remainder of the movie shifts back and forth between the forces on the ground--military, FAA--who remain inexorably a confused step behind the hijackers, and the hapless (but not helpless) passengers onboard the doomed aircraft. Ironically, these 'victims' are able to act, decisively in fact, while the military struggles to find armed planes and get them on proper headings to provide some air cover for the nation's capital, and FAA officials finally ground everything as the only way to sort things out.

Worth noting is the fact that, if the events of 9/11 had happened even just a few years earlier, the passengers on United Flight 93 would probably have died quietly in their seats, still assuming that they would be rescued in a ransom deal. The telephone technology of the 21st century enabled multiple passengers and flight attendants to piece together the events in Manhattan and at the Pentagon, and come to the conclusion that their only chance was to retake the plane at all costs.

They actually did have a chance, if only a slim one. One passenger was an experienced pilot. Another had ground control experience in his background. If they could have wrested control of the cockpit quickly--well, they just might have lived to enjoy a hero's welcome back on the ground. In a fictional film, Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford or perhaps Steven Segal would have done just that.

But, as all of us in the theater that night already knew, this wasn't a Hollywood blockbuster action film. This was real. In the real world, these people whom the filmmakers make you like don't walk away.

When United Flight 93 finally hits the ground, some 90 minutes after the start of its flight (and the film), three of the young ladies in front of us burst into uncontrolled sobbing. Their weeping was echoed here and there around the otherwise-silent chamber.

Next, first two hands, then a dozen, and then most all in the theater, applauded. The young folks, along with all the rest of us, applauded a sensitive, stirring recreation of a moment in history that is not-- for a change in their young, real-time lives--an episode in a musty textbook. United 93 reminded them history has intruded into their live

Rated R - For language, and scenes of terror and violence.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column Attorney at Large.

United 93 - Official Website
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