SHORT TAKE: “United 93” (***)

Posted by · 3:32 pm · April 20th, 2006

Universal Pictures\' United 93I finally got around to seeing the first 9/11 theatrical release earlier this week, Universal’s “United 93,” and the feelings it digs up, the questions it actually asks without hitting us over the head, and the overall commitment to ultra-reality that director Paul Greengrass is proving himself to be the master of, will all make it a unique entry in the coming wave of films rooted in that horrific day.

The film’s best moments reside in the mass confusion of Cleveland, Boston, and New York air traffic control centers, making it clear that orders and procedures failed miserably in the wake of an event that had not occured in 20 years – the hijacking of a domestic flight. It actually makes the blood boil to watch the clock tick as people second and third guess. In fact, one of the things “United 93” does so well is expand the timeline of all four crashes in our minds. To most, 9/11 was a quick moment. We discovered a plane had hit one of the towers – 15 minutes later, another plane, and within the next hour, we learned of the next two planes. It was all fleeting. But a lot was going on in that space of 60 minutes, and some of it can be downright infuriating – and it all makes those extra seven minutes he spent looking around a classroom like a lost kid seem all the more painstaking.

I love that Greengrass fills his frame largely with the actual individuals in these scenes, rather than casting them with known or even unknown actors. The effect is kind of staggering, and when you get right down to it, the best possible decision. The decision to choose his moments on the actual flight 93 wisely, keeping most of the action in the control rooms, was also wise, steering clear of presuming too much about events we’ll never fully know.

I don’t want to get into a full review here, and I want to see the film again before really forming an opinion. The sense I take from “United 93,” however, is less about the film’s subject matter than it is about the director’s talents. If Michael Mann is a director that glamorizes ultra-reality, Greengrass is a director who utilizes it like a tool in his arsenal. It’s a commanding sort of helming that seems to almost recall the notion of autuerism.

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