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United 93

Released 2006. Director: Paul Greengrass

EVERYONE KNOWS HOW THIS MOVIE IS GOING TO END. On September 11, 2001, while the other hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, United Airlines flight 93 crashed on a field in Pennsylvania, never reaching its intended target. This movie re-creates the events based on phone calls, messages and cockpit recording. A day seared into the memory of many people around the world, images of the attacks are still fresh in the mind, are we ready to revisit the horror? Do we need to see what it’s like to experience the terror?

Yes. It’s a horror movie, and yes we need to see it, not so much to experience vicariously the dying moments of a planeload of people, but be moved by their bravery.

Paul Greengrass directs United 93 in a docu-drama style. There are no interviews, no back-stories of the characters, and no single person stands out as a hero. What we see is the flow of events in the cabin and at various ground control centres on that particular morning. The movie merely re-enacts the situations, without taking a stand, as chaos and confusion at the control centres quickly grows into a foreboding sense of something truly horrible is about to happen. Then the planes, one after the other, head for the towers. Meanwhile, the passengers of United 93 begin to grasp the extent of the hijack and suspect that they were all going to be sacrificed.

Is it Greengrass’ skills or is it our knowledge of what had happened that gives the viewing such a gripping, helpless sensation? We feel the shuddering of the plane, the pounding heartbeat, the claustrophobic doom. We feel as if we were there, as the camera tilts, jerks, drops behind terrified passengers or charges down the aisle.

Some of the last words spoken by the passengers are heartbreaking as they call their loved ones and leave messages. One couple pass their mobile phone to a lone woman next to them, urging her to “call someone”, knowing that those would be the last words she would ever speak.

The depiction of the passengers’ fight against the hijackers is an act of heroism rarely matched in film in its intensity, urgency and realism. Deeply disturbing and uplifting in the same breath, United 93 arrives not a moment too soon to remind us that in the face of evil, in this instance, courage trumps terror.


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