I hesitate to reference The Delta Force here. I can already hear the anger rising out of readers, “That ’80s action movie-loving motherfucker can’t even let it rest and respect something serious for once!” But if you’ll remember, before Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin start machine- gunning and motorcycle-rocketing everything, the 1986 Menahem Golan picture shows sobering realism and nuance in its depiction of the hijacking of a commercial airliner by Arab terrorists. Obviously, “United 93” goes further by fully committing to this stance instead of turning into a shoot-em-up halfway through, and the fact that the events on screen are taken straight from recent history makes it all the more gut-wrenching.
Director Paul Greengrass applies the same documentary-like aesthetic he did in “Bloody Sunday” and “Omagh” (which he didn’t direct, but wrote and produced), both about violent events in Ireland. The British filmmaker now turns his camera towards America and the events of September 11, 2001 in general and the fate of the United 93 flight in particular. With loose yet precise, nervous yet unflinching cinematography, the film puts the audience right there with the characters, be it the terrorists, the passengers and the crew onboard or the air traffic controllers and military personnel watching helplessly from their ironically-named “control” centres.
No background, politics or motivations are involved, just seemingly ordinary people who end up doing extraordinary things (good or evil). The characters and the circumstances are developed only through the broad strokes and the details of what occurs during those two hours, which are shown more or less in real time. The hijackers are not demonized – what they do is clearly wrong, but they’re not made into monsters. Likewise, the passengers who eventually thwart the terrorists’ plot are not made into bigger than life heroes like, say, Chuck Norris or Lee Marvin. They’re regular folks, desperate and confused, who somehow manage to find courage through fear.
The scenes on the ground are equally intense, as they put us back in the chaos and dismay of that morning, as one then another planes hit the World Trade Center, shortly followed by a hit on the Pentagon and the news that United 93 has also gone off course… This is a “real world” horror yarn, speeding your heartbeat and shortening your breath with nigh-unbearable suspense and zero relapse in tension, let alone comic relief. The movie is claustrophobic as hell, as Greengrass puts you right into that damned plane and won’t let you out. You’re forced to watch as the passengers are brutalized, come to face their own mortality, say their last goodbyes to loved ones over the airphones, argue over what must be done… All until the overwhelming last minutes, where it’s unclear what’s going on – which is fitting since, even without getting into the conspiracy theories, no one knows for sure what happened exactly before the crash in that Pennsylvania field. Except those who died that day.